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President Obama has begun his promised engagement with the Syrian regime. The American objective is to pry Syria away from Iran, which is unlikely to happen. For Syria it is an opportunity to alleviate the international pressure on Damascus.

The “engagement” with Syria comes at a particularly sensitive time, just a few months before the Lebanese elections, where the present government faces stiff competition from Syrian puppet Hezballah.Of course the contact will serve to weaken Washington steps to shore up the opponents of the terrorist group.

With recent history as a guide, there is little reason to be optimistic that this attempt at engagement will succeed any more than previous tries. The president must understand the nature of the Syrian government, a brutal dictatorship, which derives its regional influence almost exclusively through its support for terrorism in neighboring states and, by extension, through its 30-year strategic alliance with Tehran.

What the President must also realize that in the Arab world negotiates based on strength and weakness.  If they perceive you are weak they will take advantage of you at every stage. Syria is already bragging that Obama’s “engagement” is a sign of American weakness:

Syrian Reactions to Initial Contacts with Obama Administration: The U.S. has Capitulated to Syria and Iran; The Resistance, Not Obama, has Changed the World
By: O. Winter *

Introduction

Since the beginning of the Obama administration there have been contacts between the U.S. and Syria, including a handshake between the two countries’ foreign ministers at the March 2, 2009 Sharm Al-Sheikh conference, [1] visits by several Congressional delegations to Syria, and a meeting between Syrian Ambassador to Washington ‘Imad Mustafa and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman. [2]

At the outset of the dialogue, both sides expressed cautious optimism regarding its chances of success. In an interview for the UAE daily Al-Khaleej, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that despite the Obama administration’s apparent good intentions, Syria was still waiting to hear clear and precise details about the new U.S. policy. [3] In an interview with the British Gaurdian, Assad said, “We have the impression that this administration will be different, and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results.” [4]

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, stated that it was too early to talk about “the ice melting” between Damascus and Washington, [5] and her deputy assistant, Jeffrey Feltman, said after his February 15, 2009 meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu’allem that the U.S. had not yet reached understandings with Syria about all of the outstanding issues. [6] A more optimistic message was conveyed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman following their meeting with President Assad. Kerry stated that despite the disagreements, there is a chance for genuine cooperation between the two countries on various issues, while Berman expressed hope that the U.S. and Syria would turn over a new leaf in their relations. He added that the policy of isolating Syriahad proved to be ineffective, and that there is need for dialogue with it. [7]

According to the Arab press, the U.S. has presented Syria with a list of preconditions for improving relations between the two countries. At a press conference he held in Beirut before his arrival in Damascus, Kerry said that Syria must respect Lebanon’s independence, advance a solution to the inter-Palestinian conflicts and the conflicts between Hizbullah and the other Lebanese factions, promote the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701, and change its behavior towards Iraq. He added that the Obama administration expected to see action, not talk. [8] Senate Foreign Relations Committee[9]

A senior U.S. State Department official told the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar that during Feltman’s meeting with the Syrian ambassador to Washington, the former had brought up the issues of Syria’s support of terrorism, its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, its involvement in Lebanon, and the deterioration of the human rights situation in Syria. [10] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that if Syria severed its ties with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions that operate within its territory, the U.S. would be willing to play a role in Israeli-Syrian negotiations, to remove Syria from the list of states sponsoring terror, and to lift the sanctions currently imposed on it. [11]

Syrian Reactions to Renewal of Dialogue with U.S.: Syria has No Intention of Changing Its Policy and will Continue to be Part of Resistance camp; It is the U.S. that Must Change Its Policy

After the commencement of the U.S.-Syria dialogue, spokesmen of the Syrian regime and articles in the Syrian press expressed the following positions:

· Syria has no intention of changing its policy and will continue to be part of the resistance camp. The U.S. is the one that must change its policy by lifting the sanctions imposed on Syria, appointing an ambassador to Damascus, and launching a dialogue with the resistance forces.

· In starting a dialogue with Syria, the U.S. has capitulated to the resistance and acknowledged the importance of Syria and Iran.

· The advent of the Obama administration does not herald an improvement in the relations with Syria.

Following are excerpts from some of the statements and articles:

Assad’s Political Advisor: “It is Time to Stop Telling Syria and Iran to Sever Their Relations with Hizbullah, Hamas, and the Other Resistance Organizations”

Most of the reports that have been published in the Syrian and Arab press to date indicate that Syria generally rejects the U.S. demands, and stresses that its policy has remained unchanged. In his meeting with Senator John Kerry, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad called on the U.S. to relinquish the policy of dictates that has proven to be ineffective, stating that dialogue is the only way to identify the real problems and formulate a comprehensive vision for resolving them. [12] Assad’s political and media advisor Buthaina Sha’ban said in a talk at London’s Westminster University that improved relations with the U.S. would not be at the expense of Syria’s relations with Iran, and added, “It is [also] time to stop telling Syria and Iran to sever their relations with Hizbullah, Hamas, and the other resistance organizations.” [13][14]

Articles in the Arab press likewise expressed reservations about the preconditions presented by the U.S. for improving its relations with Syria. Responding to the demands conveyed by Senator Benjamin Cardin, the editor of the Syrian daily Al-Watan, Wadhah ‘Abd Rabbou, wrote: “If the two [U.S.] delegations that are coming [to Syria, i.e., the Berman and Kerry delegations] … have the same positions and the same demands [as Cardin], maybe they should spare themselves the tiring trip to Damascus, since they obviously won’t find anyone in Syria who will listen to the American dictates.” ‘Abd Rabbou added: “The Syrians are now waiting for a change in the policy of the U.S., not in the policy of Syria.” [15]

‘Ali Jamalo, editor of the Syrian government-affiliated website Champress, wrote: “Cardin’s demands are insolent, to use the mildest possible term… As for the statements made by Senator John Kerry in Beirut, they reflect a lack of understanding of the region and its ways.” [16]

Syrian Ambassador to Washington ‘Imad Mustafa likewise stressed that Syria’s dialogue with the U.S. did not mean a change in its policy. In a talk he gave in Damascus, he said: “Syria’s winning card is [the fact that] it has not moved from its positions despite all the pressures it has been facing… The [fundamental] principles of [its] policy towards Washington have never changed, [even] in the most difficult circumstances.” Mustafa stressed that, despite the attempts of the Bush administration to bring about a change in its policy, Syria never “submitted to this blackmail.” [17]

Al-Watan columnist Janblat Shikawi wrote in a similar vein: “During [the terms of] at least five American administrations, Syria chose to be part of the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance camp, and to build up its relations with Iran, in accordance with its strategic vision. These administrations have come and gone, while Syria has only become more and more resolute [in] its position.” [18]

However, other statements and reports indicate that Syria has shown some willingness to comply with the U.S. demands. In an interview for Al-Jazeera, Al-Mu’allem said that there were “some points of convergence” between the Syrian and U.S. positions regarding the security, stability, and unity of Iraq, and that Syria supports Obama’s decision to withdraw from this country. [19][20] The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported, citing an American source, that during Kerry’s visit to Damascus, Syria had expressed a willingness help settle the conflict between Fatah and Hamas and establish of a Palestinian unity government, and to promote the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. [21] The Syrian government daily Al-Thawra quoted Syrian Ambassador to Washington ‘Imad Mustafa as saying, “There is much common ground between Syria and the U.S. as to ending the war in Iraq, attaining peace [in the Middle East], restoring the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, and establishing a Palestinian state. However, there are disagreements about the details, and about the methods and mechanisms of implementation.” [22]

Former Syrian Minister: Three Scenarios for U.S.-Syria Cooperation

In a Teshreen article, former Syrian information minister Mahdi Dahlallah reviewed the points of agreement and controversy between Syria and the U.S., and presented several scenarios for cooperation between them:

“Syria and Washington agree on three things: on terrorism, on peace, and on weapons of mass destruction. They disagree on three things: on terrorism, on peace, and on weapons of mass destruction…

“[As for] terrorism, Syria’s position is that the most significant terrorism in the region is [perpetrated by] the state of Israel, whose barbarism and brutality are beyond anything that human history has ever known. Then there is the terrorism of the groups that engage in takfir [i.e., accuse others of heresy, such as Al-Qaeda]… The foundation of [Syria’s] position is a total rejection of the deliberate confusion between resistance and terrorism. The U.S., on the other hand, regards the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance as the source of terrorism, and sees anyone who supports them as responsible for terrorism. This is a fundamental difference in the positions of the two countries. However, there is agreement regarding the designation of the takfir groups – especially Al-Qaeda and its offshoots – as terrorist [organizations]…

“[Regarding the issue of] peace, Syria’s position is clear. [It is in favor of a] comprehensive peace based on the [U.N. resolutions]… The U.S. must play an active and meaningful role [in this process], since Israel will not accept peace willingly, [but will agree to it] only if coerced. Washington, on the other hand, thinks that the peace agreement must be bilateral, and that its only role should be that of an impartial mediator… Washington believes that pressure must be exerted on the Arabs, but that exerting pressure on Israel is almost unthinkable…

“[Last, as for] WMDs, Syria is cognizant of Israel’s dangerous nuclear arsenal, while the U.S. sees [only] Iran’s so-called nuclear program. This is the greatest point of disagreement between the two sides…

“There are three practical scenarios for cooperation [between Syria and the U.S.]:

“1. Placing the bilateral relations and cooperation above the regional issues. There is no doubt that a positive atmosphere in the bilateral relations [between the U.S. and Syria] would lead to greater understanding on the regional issues. The problem is that, so far, Washington [has insisted] on linking the bilateral relations with the regional issues. [23]

“2. Agreeing that Syria should mediate between Iran and the West…

“3. A change in the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict (a remote possibility).” [24]

Syria’s Demand for Fundamental Changes in U.S. Policy

While rejecting most of the U.S. demands regarding its own policy, Syria expects the Obama administration to introduce a series of changes in the U.S. policy vis-à-vis Syria and the Middle East:

1.Lifting the sanctions imposed on Syria: A short while after Obama’s election, Syrian Vice President Farouq Al-Shar’ stated that an improvement in Syria-U.S. relations required the removal of Syria from the list of countries sponsoring terror, and the abolition of the December 2003 Syria Accountability Act, which imposes a series of sanctions on Syria as a country that sponsors terror and possesses non-conventional weapons. [25] As a matter of fact, the Syrian press recently reported that the U.S. has begun easing the sanctions, [26] though high-ranking U.S. officials denied this claim. [27] It should be noted that in a recent interview for Al-Thawra, Ambassador ‘Imad Mustafa obfuscated the traditional Syrian demand for a complete lifting of the sanctions. He said that Syria refused to discuss the Syria Accountability Act with the Obama administration, since this could open it to blackmail, but added that the U.S. “knew what it had to do” in order to mend its relations with Syria. [28]

2. Appointing a U.S. Ambassador in Damascus: Syrian officials, including Assad’s advisor Buthaina Sha’ban, expressed a hope that an improvement in the relations with the U.S. would lead to the appointment of a U.S. ambassador in Damascus. [29] Syria’s Al-Watan even reported, citing diplomatic sources in Washington, that the U.S. meant to appoint an ambassador this summer. [30] ‘Imad Mustafa, however, downplayed the importance of this decision, saying that the appointment of an ambassador in Damascus was an American, rather than Syrian, interest. [31]

3. Launching a U.S. Dialogue with Hamas and Hizbullah: Syria also demands that the U.S. change its attitude towards the resistance forces. Mustafa called on it “to negotiate with all forces, including Hamas and Hizbullah,” in order to bring peace to the Middle East. [32] Teshreen editor Samira Al-Masalma wrote in an editorial that “If the U.S. wishes … to sponsor the peace process, it must be impeccably impartial and fair. To that end, it must declare that resistance is a legitimate right, and that terror and resistance are two different things.” [33] Columnist ‘Ali Nasrallah wrote in Al-Thawra that the U.S. could reach significant understandings with Syria if it recognized the peoples’ right to resist occupation and Syria’s right to receive back the Golan, upheld the Security Council resolutions, and refrained from interfering in the affairs of sovereign states. [34]

The U.S. has Capitulated to Syria and Iran

Syrian regime spokesmen stressed the changes that have occurred in the U.S. policy towards Syria, in contrast to Syria’s firm insistence on its traditional views. The Syrian press presented this as an American capitulation to Syria and Iran, and as an acknowledgement of their status.

Buthaina Sha’ban assessed that there is “a real change in the position of the American administration,” [35] while Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad stated, “The Obama administration has no choice but to negotiate with the forces in the region in an attempt to improve its image.” [36][37]

Former Syrian Minister: “We Can Not Believe that the [Obama] Administration Suddenly Discovered Moral Sentiments or Positions that Prompted the Turnaround [in Its Attitude]”

Articles in Teshreen stated that the resistance had forced the U.S. to change its policy in the region. Former Syrian information minister Mahdi Dahlallah wrote: “The most important factor that brought about the change [in U.S. policy] is the Arab resistance camp, [comprising] Syria, the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, and the Iraqi people, who refused [to accept] the occupation. Additional [factors] are the Iranian position, which refuses to accept the [American] hegemony, as well as the new Russian policy…

“Had Bush been able [to implement] his policy without meeting opposition from anyone, the new administration would have continued the same policy… The change introduced by Obama … does not stem from an [American] reassessment of its ideology … but from [Bush’s] failure to achieve the goals that the U.S. was – and still is – pursuing… This means that it was not Obama that changed the world, but the resistance and the refusal [to accept] hegemony. [It also means that] persistence in this path is the best way to continue advancing towards a better [future]. Should the resistance lose momentum, Obama – and the Western leadership as a whole – will re-embrace the method of hegemony and dictates.” [38]

Similar sentiments were expressed by Syrian Parliament Member Khaled Al-‘Aboud: “We cannot believe that the [Obama] administration suddenly discovered moral sentiments or positions that prompted the turnaround [in its attitude towards Syria]. [This administration simply] realized that it can not promote the totality of its interests in the region without a relationship with the Syrians… The [Obama] administration was forced to take this course, and should be treated accordingly.” [39]

Damascus and Tehran Are No Longer Seen as Two Separate Players

Muhammad Sadeq Al-Husseini, secretary-general of the Iranian-Arab Dialogue Forum, wrote in Teshreen that the U.S. will not be able to stop the decline of its status in the Middle East and the world, unless it recognizes the importance of Syria and Iran: “There has been a turnaround in America’s [attitude], albeit a vague and hesitant one, and this strengthens our belief that the U.S. is declining on several levels – global and regional – and that [this deterioration] cannot be stopped without recognizing the importance of Damascus and Tehran!…

“This does not mean, of course, that the honeymoon between Damascus and Washington, or between Tehran and Washington, has begun, but it is [nevertheless] meaningful in two ways. First, the U.S. is weak and exhausted, and has been forced to submit to the important role of the two capitals [Damascus and Tehran] (as the Baker-Hamilton Commission advised it to do)… Second, Damascus and Tehran are no longer seen as two separate players that have problematic bilateral [relations] with the U.S. or the international community… [They are part of] a camp, or an alliance, that has wagered on the option of resistance and has exhibited strategic patience, wisdom. and intelligence for many lean years, and is [now] reaping [a bountiful] harvest.” [40]

Lebanese Columnist Writing in Teshreen: Whoever Bets on the Resistance Withdrawing from Its Decisions – Ends Up Losing Again and Again

“Former Lebanese MP Nasser Qandil, who is close to the Syrian regime, also wrote in Teshreen about the gradual erosion in America’s position vis-à-vis Syria: “[The U.S.] has called for a change in Syria’s position … [but] so far, it is the U.S. itself that has changed its position twice. [First], it replaced its hegemonial plan with the plan [of calling on Syria] to change its conduct as a precondition for American openness towards it. [Then] it replaced the plan of dictating preconditions with [a policy] of unconditional dialogue. As for Syria – has it changed in any way? It is Washington, then, that changes its conduct, while Syria only adheres ever more resolutely to its decisions. Whoever bets on the resistance withdrawing from its decisions ends up losing again and again. [41]

The Obama Administration Will Not Help Improve U.S.-Syrian Relations

Several articles in the Syrian press expressed doubt that the Obama administration would bring about an improvement in the U.S.-Syrian relations, and even contended that Obama’s election ran counter to the interests of the Arabs.

Syrian MP: Obama Is Following in Bush’s Footsteps

In a Teshreen article, Syrian MP Khaled Al-‘Aboud wrote: “The U.S. insists on playing a role that, so far, has been too big for it. It has not yet grasped the facts or [acknowledged] the legitimate and unquestionable rights of the people of the region, and it is far from being able to contribute to the creation of a secure and stable region, endowed with peace and relations based on the understanding of the rights and interests of others.”

Al-‘Aboud proceeded to present evidence that the Obama administration follows in the footsteps of the previous U.S. administrations: “The U.S. continues to maintain [the March 14 Forces in Lebanon] as a major U.S. tool in the region, using it as a lever to promote the U.S.-Israeli project and to harm Syria… Nor is it loath to use the arrest warrant [against the Sudanese President ‘Omar Al-Bashir] as a tool to apply pressure … and achieve its objectives in Africa… We can also see that it is seeking regional and Arab platforms from which to exert pressure on Iran without engaging in direct military conflict with it – which, [the U.S.] knows, would cost it dearly… A military conflict between the Arabs and Iran would weaken both sides, and at the same time ensure the interests of the U.S. and Israel.” [42]

Article in a Syrian Government Daily: The U.S. Is the Enemy of All the Peoples on the Face of the Earth

Palestinian philosopher Dr. Ahmad Burqawi, of the Philosophy Department at Damascus University, argued in Al-Thawra that Obama’s election ran counter to the Arab interests, since it would slow down the erosion of the U.S.’s power. He wrote: “Many columnists were jubilant when Obama prevailed over his Republican rival, whose name I have already forgotten, in the U.S. presidential [elections]. [So great was the enthusiasm] that it seemed as if, had the Arabs been able to vote, Obama would have won by an overwhelming 99 percent majority – as is usually the case here [among the Arabs] – but this time, [the results would have been] genuine.

“The ecstasy displayed by the Arab public as it followed Obama’s victory on the [television] screens is understandable. Their hatred for Bush made them feel vengeful, [and they felt] as though Obama was taking revenge on Bush in their name… For myself, I hoped that the Republican candidate would win in a landslide, because I thought it in the Arabs’ interests that the U.S. continue its idiotic policies in the world, which were leading it into crisis after crisis. We have no interest in a savior who will deliver the U.S. from the diplomatic, financial, and global crisis [in which it finds itself]. In my opinion, the Arabs’ delight at Obama’s election reflects a naïve and simplistic outlook based on nothing more than vengefulness…

“Oh Arabs, instead of rejoicing at Obama’s victory, think how we can force the U.S. to recognize our existence, our rights, and our humanity in Palestine, Iraq, and Sudan, and how to encourage it to take us into consideration as it plans the future of the region according to its own interests. Oh Arabs, the U.S., at this stage of its history, is, to some degree, the enemy of every nation on the face of the earth… Its policy is pitched against nature, against man, against the future, and against the Arab nation – its culture and its future. The U.S. is [the enemy] of our hopes.” [43]

*O. Winter is a research fellow at MEMRI

[1] Al-Watan (Syria), March 3, 2009.

[2] A delegation headed by Congressman Adam Smith visited Syria in late January 2009. Three other Congress delegations, headed by Benjamin Cardin, John Kerry and Howard Berman, respectively, came to Syria in February 2009. Also, in early March 2009, Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council member Daniel Shapiro met in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu’allem. Al-Watan (Syria), February 1, 19, 22, 2009; Al-Thawra (Syria), February 27, March 8, 2009.

[3] Al-Khaleej (UAE), March 9, 2009.

[4] The Guardian (UK), February 17, 2009.

[5] Reuters, February 26, 2009.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2009.

[7] Al-Watan (Syria), February 22, 2009.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), February 19, 2009.

[9] Al-Watan (Syria), February 19, 2009.

[10] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 27, 2009.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 12, 2009.

[12] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 22, 2009.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 19, 2009.

[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), march 12, 2009.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), February 19, 2009.

[16] www.champress.net, February 21, 2009.

[17] Al-Watan (Syria), February 24, 2009.

[18] Al-Watan (Syria), February 19, 2009.

[19] Teshreen (Syria), February 22, 2009.

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 12, 2009.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2009.

[22] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 24, 2009.

[23] Al-Mu’allem likewise called on the U.S. not to link its bilateral relations with Syria to the latter’s positions on Middle East issues. Teshreen (Syria), March 22, 2009.

[24] Teshreen (Syria), March 4, 2009.

[25] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 28, 2009.

[26] Many of these reports came after the U.S. Department of Commerce authorized to sell Syria spare parts for its Boeing 747 jets, which had been grounded for years during the Bush administration – a move that was characterized by Syrian Transport Minister Dr. Ya’roub Badr as a “positive signal” on the part of the U.S. Al-Ba’th (Syria), February 8, 2009.

[27] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 16, 2009.

[28] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 25, 2009.

[29] Al-Watan (Syria), February 17, 2009.

[30] Al-Watan (Syria), February 1, 2009.

[31] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 25, 2009.

[32] Al-Watan (Syria), February 24, 2009.

[33] Teshreen (Syria), February 21, 2009.

[34] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 10, 2009.

[35] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 13, 2009.

[36] Al-Watan (Syria), March 17, 2009.

[37] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 25, 2009.

[38] Teshreen (Syria), February 25, 2009.

[39] Teshreen (Syria), March 3, 2009.

[40] Teshreen (Syria), February 25, 2009.

[41] Teshreen (Syria), February 22, 2009.

[42] Teshreen (Syria), March 10, 2009.

[43] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 3, 2009. member Benjamin Cardin demanded that Syria stop sponsoring terror, called on it to change its policies regarding human rights and freedom of speech, and characterized its relations with Iran as “worrying.” Knowledgeable sources in Damascus told the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu’allem had told U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman that Syria is determined to maintain its tight relations with Iran, and that it is the West that had to change its policy towards Syria. Al-Akhbar reported that, in his meeting with Feltman, Al-Mu’allem had expressed willingness to support the implementation of Resolution 1701, and had disclosed that Syria was forming a special team to demarcate its border with Lebanon. Ambassador Mustafa likewise stated that the visits of the U.S. delegations “might indicate a fundamental change in the U.S. position on the points of contention between the two countries.” He added that the “social boycott” that Bush had placed upon the Syrian embassy in Washington had been lifted, and that for the first time in four years he had been invited to take part in an event organized by the U.S. administration for diplomatic staff.

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