US policy towards Syria is an important element of its approach to a region where conflicts and alliances are interconnected.
To succeed in the Middle East Barack Obama will need to balance micro and macro policy in the correct order. The interconnected nature of conflicts and alliances in the Middle East present even the most accomplished peacemaker with an immense challenge.
Timing is indeed important. There are new leaders in the US and Israel, and secure allies stationed in Jordan and Egypt. What has been described as the "moderate alliance" should be filled with a decent tank of political capital with which to fuel attempts to bring hope of a better future.
Yet despite what Obama described as a "historic opportunity to get a serious movement", Monday's summit with Benjamin Netanyahu was characterised by an absence of any real progress. Obama, as the latest entrant to the Middle East political scene and perhaps its most influential actor, will need to learn quickly. He will have to balance keeping his efforts concentrated towards a sequenced strategic plan while taking calculated risks at times of inertia.
Back in 2007 academics including Francis Fukuyama debated how sequencing could be used to "build effective state institutions before holding unfettered elections, reducing the risk of violence during a democratic transition". With the "democratisation agenda" taking a back seat to a far more realist-pragmatic attempt at containing the violent spillover from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sequencing has evolved into an ordering of foreign policy priorities that takes into account the matrix-like repercussions of each decision made.
Yet while Obama's headline policies will be made in respect to Iran, US involvement in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian track, US policy towards Syria is an important element of the new administration's approach to the region.
Syria is important but not as important as it thinks it is. While the Ba'athist republic of some 20 million people is neither militarily nor resource rich, home to neither good governance nor good human rights, it does hold cards in all the major regional games.
The Baker-Hamilton report recognised engaging with Syria as a means to improving the US situation in Iraq. Yet Syria's Jekell and Hyde approach to the US presence in Iraq remains in play. In March Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said after talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem that "security co-operation (along the border) has been much better than before, particularly in the last few months". Talks on rebuilding the Kirkuk-Baniyas oil pipeline were also developed as relations improved.
However, less than a month later the head of the nascent Iraqi air force, Anwar Ahmad, arrived in Washington looking to buy F-16 jets that could be used against to protect against Syria, which he said had become "a gateway to terrorists". As the security situation in Iraq worsened recently, Centcom's David Petraeus told Congress in April that the al-Qaida in Iraq pipeline through Syria had been "reactivated".
Although President Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to be received at the White House any time soon, Obama has reached out to Syria. Indeed Syria has dramatically improved its regional and international standing over recent years. Last year Assad renewed ties with France, attending Bastille Day in Paris, and a number of senior US officials including John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi have visited Assad's court in Damascus. As the Financial Times recently reported, "US officials now travel to Damascus for talks; they even show up at the national day celebrations of the Syrian embassy in Washington".
Despite this warming of ties, the US renewed sanctions against Syria earlier in the month and has yet to send an ambassador to Damascus, an important face-saving and symbolic gesture of rapprochement. US undersecretary of state Jeffery Feltman explained that "we continue to have serious concerns about Syria's actions". Syria reacted with some affront at this snub, hopes of an Obama spring following the Bush winter having taken a knock.
Syria may not be able to shape its region but it can and has undermined the more grandiose plans of others in the past and will do so again unless its interests are acknowledged. With political speed bumps hit in engaging Iran, Syria and Israel/Palestine, the question is whether Obama will stick to his present sequencing approach or attempt a "Hail Mary" grand bargain plan that changes the parameters in what appears at present to be several "no war, no peace" moribund peace tracks. What is crystal clear is that the status quo is by no means sustainable.