The election of Barack Obama promised a fresh start between Washington and Damascus -- a necessary new beginning, after the deterioration of relations under the administration of George W. Bush.
The United States (US) recalled their ambassador in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but after five years of tense hiatus this January, Syria welcomed the appointment of Robert Ford as the new US ambassador. The appointment had been planned for 2010, but congressional stalling led to an important plank of Barack Obama's post-Bus Middle Eastern re-engagement policy being delayed. There are already a number of powerful critics of the decision, including new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,who immediately described the move as a 'major concession to the Syrian regime'.
Yet, following the WikiLeaks fiasco, Obama's administration needs proof that diplomatic efforts can bring more than embarrassment to the doors of Washington. Although regularly portrayed as simply a spoiler country, Syria has long played the dual game of slamming the US in public whilst looking for engagement in private. Indeed the diplomatic cables showed how last year Syrian intelligence Director General Ali Mamlouk made a 'surprise' appearance at a meeting during the visit of US counter-terrorism Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, who pledged that 'the US expected that the Syrian people would see the benefits of closer relationship'.
An improved relationship between Washington and Damascus is an important component in maintaining peace and stability in a region that welcomed the New Year amid fresh talk of renewed conflict. Looking ahead to what 2011 may bring, the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen warned how 'the increasingly well armed Middle East is a layer cake of enmity and alliances -- large parts of it are struggling to deal with modernization and populations that are rising fast, with many young Arabs are alienated from their rulers.' The region's structural democratic deficit is often hidden from mainstream view by sharper focus around international concern over a future conflict triggered by the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Iran's nuclear program, or the United Nations' tribunal on the assassination of Hariri.
Where does Syria fit into this narrative? Although last year Damascus largely avoided the headlines, it continues to play a pivotal role in events in Lebanon and wields important influence in both Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories. Over the past years it has maintained high visibility in these three countries where Syrian-US interests have clashed. The continued legacy of these conflicts is seen in the language of the US sanctions on the country which declare that Syria is a 'unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States' by 'supporting terrorism, maintaining its then existing occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.' Last May, Obama renewed the sanctions that had been originally imposed in 2004, demanding that Syria make 'progress' towards a shopping list of complaints that the US has with the Arab republic.
For Washington, Iraq may be the most important issue of shared concern. The Obama administration is aware that for the national unity government in Baghdad to stay together and for the US withdrawal to be completed by the end of the year, Syria must buy into the continued fragile consensus. Relations between Damascus and Baghdad endured a rollercoaster of a year in 2010. A devastating double truck bombing in August 2009 was blamed on Syria and froze the previously thawed Syrian-Iraqi ties. Relations were improved by visits from Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Tariq Hashemi last year. Hashemi thanked Syria for hosting so many Iraqi refugees, an important concession, as the issue of the Iraqi refugee community in Syria remains sensitive following the accusation of Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad in 2010 that Baghdad had failed to provide sufficient financial aid.
Meanwhile, both Washington and Baghdad express regular fury that the Syrian government continues to allow Baathists like Khudeir Rashidi o Mishaan al-Jabouri to operate out of Damascus. Although not huge in numbers, supporters of the late Saddam Hussein are accused of providing logistical support and planning attacks in Iraq, with Iraqi Baathists gathering in Damascus in March 2010 to denounce the US 'occupation' and demand that his loyalists unite.
By contrast, the Syrians would argue that they have made significant progress in securing their border with Iraq to prevent the flow of foreign fighters into the country, constructing a sand berm and moving large numbers of troops to the previously un-demarcated, largely desert boundary. Obama acknowledged the Syrian progress in this regard, a fact that was backed up by Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari , who told The Independent last May that Al Qaeda was running out of foreign fighters to act as suicide bombers. Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks documents showed that Damascus was following up a series of requests from Washington to uncover the location of several terrorist suspects.
The appointment of Ambassador Ford posits the question: now the decision to engage Syria has been officially endorsed, how should Washington look to approach this new opportunity at building a relationship? At his confirmation Ford offered rhetoric of his own, promising 'unfiltered straight talk with the Syrian government' as his mission priority. However the appointment of an ambassador could allow for a genuinely new approach from the US in dealing with authoritarian states such as Syria. The US strategy in neighboring Iraq was one of devastating sanctions followed by military invasion, which prompted state collapse and civil war in the country, a powerful narrative that the regions leaders have used to warn against further democratization or political opening.
With state collapse leading to the kind of ungoverned space in which groups like Al Qaeda thrive, Washington could look to state reform as a method of progress. Soft power is back in vogue but is hugely diverse in its methods, which include the authorities in Saudi Arabia showing the US television series Desperate Housewives as a reportedly successful method of reducing extremism.
A novel US approach could take its inspiration from Thaler and Sunstein's theory of liberal paternalism to unblock the gridlock of authoritarianism across the Middle East. Thaler and Sunstein argue that their theory shows both how to influence people and improve decisions without forcing people to act against their will. At a state level, Damascus has proved able to endure both US sanctions as well as efforts to isolate it internationally. Direct pressure on Syria has failed to bring results, with Damascus's concerns over US expansionism forcing them closer to their allies in Tehran and crystallizing the lines of a potentially catastrophic future conflict.
Inspired diplomacy backed by political commitment in Washington could correctly align the colors of the complex Middle Eastern Rubik's cube to find a sustainable peace in a region blighted by conflict and underdevelopment. Rather than continued lecturing on human rights whilst simultaneously secretly asking for help with interrogating terror suspects,Washington could 'nudge' Syria in the right direction by providing the choice architecture that could allow a faster route out of isolation and a greater choice of alliances than the current Iran-Hezbollah axis on which Damascus has been forced to depend. The decision to appoint an Ambassador gives Washington a figurehead invested with a level of recognized authority to kick-start the New Year with some hope for a safer Middle East.
Originally published in The World Today, February 2011 .