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What Can Washington Expect From Renewed Ties With Damascus?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) greets U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns ahead of their meeting in Damascus.
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision to send a U.S. ambassador back to Syria after a five-year absence restores a diplomatic relationship that just two years ago would have been unthinkable.

Under former President George W. Bush, Syria was shunned by the United States and added to a growing list of countries designated as members of an "axis of evil."

On February 17, one day after the White House announced that it had nominated career diplomat Robert Ford as its new envoy, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns sat down for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

The highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Syria in five years emerged from that meeting to say he had "no illusions about the challenges" that lie ahead, but that his discussion with Assad had left him feeling "hopeful that we [the two countries] can make progress together in the interest of both."

Change Of Strategy

The United States pulled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after Syria was accused of involvement in the Beirut assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Syria denied the allegation but was already smarting from sanctions imposed by Bush, who accused Syria of supporting terrorism, trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and what the White House said were efforts to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.

Soon after, Syria stopped cooperating with the United States on its pursuit of terrorism suspects.

Obama renewed those sanctions last May, and Syria remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism for its support of the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah, a Lebanon-based Shi'ite Muslim political and guerrilla group the United States considers a terrorist organization.

But the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy has been reaching out to countries the previous administration shunned as foes or sharply curtailed relations with.

This new approach has been criticized by human rights activists on the left and hawkish Republicans on the right. But administration officials defend it as a philosophy rooted in pragmatism: Disagreements are acknowledged and made clear, but shared interests and common goals are collectively pursued.

In response to Obama's latest olive branch, there have already been cries of outrage from some members of Congress, where members of the Senate will vote on Ford's nomination.

Bringing Syria In From The Cold

But after five years of not having a presence in Damascus, the United States can no longer ignore the fact that Syria has become essential to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Among other shared interests, both countries want to see a stable Iraq and neither wants to see a confrontation between Iran and Israel that could enflame the entire region.

Murhaf Jouejati is a Syrian-born political expert who has advised Syria on Middle East peace talks and worked with the European Commission in Damascus. He is now a scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute and teaches at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

Jouejati says the Bush policy of isolating and imposing sanctions on Syria did the opposite of what it intended: Rather than weaken Syria, it strengthened Syria's role in the region. The result is a country that the United States needs as an ally.

"Syria is a key player in the Middle East. It has an impact on Lebanon. It has an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It has an impact on Iraq. Syria is pivotal," Jouejati says. "And the approach of trying to change regimes or to use even violence against it and sanctions against it did not work."

To be sure, Syria's close relationship with Iran is something analysts and diplomats agree the United States would like to see change, but Jouejati says better relations with Washington won't come at the expense of its relationship with Tehran.

"I don't think there is much illusion in Washington that this is going to create a great distance between Syria and Iran," he says. "I think from a Syrian perspective, an improved U.S.-Syrian relationship is not going to be at the expense of a Syrian-Iranian relationship. "

Revive The Peace Process

That could change, he thinks, if renewed U.S. ties spur Syria to reengage in the Middle East peace process. A Syria at peace with Israel would dilute Damascus's relationship with Tehran, he says.

But how likely is it that Syria, even with U.S. prodding, will be able to help move the Middle East peace process forward?

Undersecretary Burns sounded hopeful when he said Ford's nomination was a sign of "America's readiness to improve relations and to cooperate in the pursuit of just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis."

Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, mediated by Turkey, broke down during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008.

Syria has sought to restart the talks as the confrontation between Iran and the West and Israel over Tehran's nuclear activities has escalated, but first it wants an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, the resource-rich Syrian plateau that Israel seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel has said it is willing to resume talks without preconditions. Jouejati points out that the region's other big stalemate, between Israel and the Palestinians, could benefit from the revival of a Syria-Israeli peace process.

But Jouejati adds that it appears "to the Syrians and many others in the region that the Israelis are firm on not wanting to commit themselves to a withdrawal to the June '67 lines on the Golan Heights. This is the red line for Syria. If Israel cannot produce such a commitment, there is nothing to talk about."

While he says he isn't "overly optimistic" about the chances for success, Jouejati will admit to being "cautiously optimistic" that the two countries will sit down again at the table for talks. "Both Syria and Israel know that their recent harsh rhetoric against one another will serve no one's interest," he says. "And war certainly is in no one's interest. "

Whether the United States' decision to restore ties with Syria will bring peace between Arabs and Israelis, stability to Iraq, and cost Tehran a key ally remains to be seen.

What is clear, Jouejati says, is that a reversal of what he calls the "totally counterproductive" old U.S. policy toward Damascus was long overdue. Now, he believes, it's time to give dialogue a chance to work.