Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s netting of 97.6% of the vote in a referendum last month put to rest speculation about the degree of the young president’s hold on power in Damascus. Meanwhile in Washington, Syria analysts and policymakers are scratching their heads, trying to make sense of a series of developments on Syria’s political scene following recent visits to Damascus by U.S. legislators opposed to the Bush Administration’s isolation of Syria.
In early April, a congressional delegation led by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Damascus to discuss a whole host of regional issues, most notably the deteriorating situation in Iraq and long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. Rumors circulating during the visit said delegation members were considering lifting U.S. trade sanctions on Syria tightened in the Syrian Accountability Act of 2004. The road to engaging Damascus seemed wide open.
As Democratic Party members lined up in April for visas at the Syrian embassy in Washington, courts in Damascus sentenced a number of dissidents whose arrests last year were closely followed by Western embassies on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “inciting a foreign country to attack Syria”. The message was clear: interfering in Syria’s internal affairs – a current focus of the Bush Administration – will have dire consequences.
In Washington, the stiff sentences benefited Syria’s adversaries in the Bush Administration, who pummeled U.S. legislators visiting Damascus for ignoring the dissidents’ plight in their meetings with President Assad. On 8 May, President Bush extended U.S. sanctions on Syria for another year. A week later, the same legislators who sponsored tighter sanctions in 2004 introduced a bill further turning the screws on Damascus. No American legislator has been seen in Damascus since.
Icy relations between Damascus and Washington appear to be thawing, although it’s unclear just how fast. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Mu’allem on Iraqi border security on the sidelines of a 3 May conference on Iraq was the highest level meeting between the two sides since Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus on suspicion of Syria’s involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syrians say the meeting appears to have given U.S. diplomats wiggle room. On 10 May, U.S. chargé d’affaires Michael Corbin became the highest-ranking diplomat in years to attend a Syrian president’s opening address before parliament. Assad said that while Syria remained ready “to help the Iraqi people”, its occupiers were another matter. He said Syria has “demands” and not “conditions” for peace with Israel. Last, but certainly not least, Assad said that while Syria had cooperated with the investigation into Hariri’s murder, it will not cooperate with the tribunal to try the murder’s suspects if it violates Syria’s sovereignty.
With both sides talking past and not to each other, former American politicians and officials are meeting with Syrian intellectuals, analysts and media figures behind closed doors. They are tackling the big issues – Iraqi security, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and peace with Israel. Neither side expects progress until after President Bush leaves office in January 2009. But on smaller, more niggling problems, progress might be possible. Near the top of the list is Syria’s closing of the Damascus offices of Amideast – an American NGO that for over 35 years promoted mutual understanding between the U.S. and the peoples of the Middle East. Re-opening Amideast’s doors in Damascus would be a good first step to rebuilding trust with the American people. Dropping U.S. trade sanctions on Syria would help America’s case with Syrians as well.