Thursday, November 6, 2008

Damascus' ten demands to receive Obama

Syria's state-run newspaper "Al-Thawra" ran an article today saying that Syria "extends its hand" to President-elect Barak Obama. Meanwhile, Editor-in-Chief of the pro regime monthly Forward Magazine, Sami Moubayed, who also serves as a member of the US-Syria Working Group, has outlined ten things that the new president must do in order for Damascus to be "willing to open its arms" and receive him in Damascus.

If this is what Damascus is truly thinking (which it might to an extent), it indicates that engagement with Syria could be far more difficult than many analysts predict. The long list of demands outlined in the article are particularly ironic, given president-elect Obama's open willingness to engage Syria and Iran. The timing of the list's release - a mere two days following Obama's election - seems odd as well.

According to Moubayed, Syria can "use its weight in the region to moderate the behavior of non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, and find solutions for the US standoff with Iran over its nuclear program."

In return, "What the Syrians are expecting 11 weeks from now when Obama is sworn in as president is the following:
  • Appointment of a US ambassador to Syria. The post has been vacant since Margaret Scooby was withdrawn when relations plummeted over Lebanon in 2005. This would be accompanied by greater room to maneuver for Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha, who has been spurned by the Bush administration because of his criticism of how Bush treated Syria.
  • An end to the anti-Syrian rhetoric coming out of the White House and State Department since 2003. That would automatically reduce the anti-Syrian sentiment in the US media.
  • Recognition of Syria's cooperation on border security with Iraq.
  • Cooperation with Syria to deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.
  • Lifting - in due course - of the sanctions that were imposed on Damascus and abolishment of the Syrian Accountability Act.
  • Willingness to sponsor Syria's indirect peace talks with Israel, currently on hold in Turkey. That is something Bush curtly refused to do since the talks started in April 2008, claiming that Syria was more interested in a peace process than a peace treaty. Syria is sincere and the new White House must acknowledge that to deliver peaceful results in the Middle East. American guarantees and willingness to serve as an honest broker could make the talks successful, the Syrians believe, transforming them from indirect to direct negotiations. Syria is determined to regain the occupied Golan Heights (taken by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967) and Obama must help Syria achieve that if he is sincere about change in the region.
  • Recognizing that no problems can be solved in the Middle East without Syria with regard to the Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese. Bush launched his famous "roadmap" for peace between Israel and Palestine, but bypassed the Syrians. If another roadmap were to be launched, Syria would have to be included.
  • Help Syria combat Islamic fundamentalism that has been flowing into its territory from north Lebanon and Iraq. The deadly September 27 attack in Damascus - which left nearly 40 Syrians dead and injured - should have been a wake-up call for the Americans that unless cooperation is forthcoming from the US, Syria might become a battleground for extremists, as in the 1980s. Intelligence cooperation and technical assistance with the Americans is needed to curb and combat this Islamic threat.
  • An apology, compensation and explanation for the air raid on Syria that left eight Syrian civilians dead in October 2008.
  • Help normalize relations between Syria and America on a people-to-people level, which have been strained since Bush came to power in 2001. That would include giving visas to Syrians wanting to study or work in the US.

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