US to Syria: let the bargaining begin

The Obama administration is in the talking business again. In particular, it's talking to an American “enemy” without preconditions, in a clear break with the Bush years. Once upon a time, we commonly referred to it as diplomacy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced during a Mideast tour that two high-level envoys would be dispatched to Damascus for “preliminary conversations.” While acknowledging that there was “no way to predict” the direction that U.S. relations would take, the secretary of state said “it is a worthwhile effort.”

It may take two envoys to untangle relations with Syria that have been on the rocks since the early days of the Bush administration and in deep freeze since 2005.

Are these the first steps in the Obama administration's new approach to the Middle East? The tentative opening with Syria certainly made the headlines, but for many Middle East watchers, it is too soon to tell.

“This is such a low-cost investment, it’s a nothing burger,” says Aaron David Miller, who worked for six secretaries of state and wrote a book about peace-making in the Middle East. “I’m from Ohio, but on this one, I’m from Missouri, you have to show me that they are going to be tough, smart, and fair. Those are the three things you need to succeed in this arena.”

Obama wasted no time signaling that his administration was willing to talk to Syria, and the signals have been loud and clear. In the past few weeks the U.S. Treasury Department allowed parts for two aging Syrians aircraft to be delivered, and also permitted $500,000 raised in the U.S. to be transferred to a Syrian cancer charity.

The Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, was invited to the State Department for the first high-level talks in years. (In one last slap in the waning moments of the Bush administration, Syria’s ambassador was left off the invitation list for the Obama inauguration).

In February, Sen. John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went to Damascus and declared his hope for "the possibility of real cooperation on a number of different issues beginning immediately.”

For his part, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has been signaling right back. Assad sent a cable of congratulations when the new American president was sworn into office. 

Further, the Syrian leader told the Guardian newspaper that: "There is no substitute for the United States." It is a remarkable statement considering that during the Bush years Syria often accused the United States of war crimes and encouraging terrorism.

There is  a bargaining process underway, says Josh Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, who runs an influential blog on all things Syrian. “The Obama administration is trying to feel their way forward,” Landis said. “Addressing the Palestinian issue is difficult, Iran is complicated, so that leaves you with Syria.”

And there is plenty to talk about. Syria plays a role in Iraq, sharing a border and hosting an Iraqi refugee population that is still estimated at over one million. Damascus has close ties to the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah and wields considerable influence in neighboring Lebanon where an election is scheduled later in the year. Assad is adept at playing these cards and keeping current at least one part of the old Middle East adage that you can’t make war in the region without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.

For Damascus, reclaiming the Golan Heights, a strip of high land captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981, is the ultimate goal in warming relations with the Obama administration, aside from continued good relations with the U.S. in order to meet other key goals. The new opening offered by Clinton could clear the way for Israel and Syria to restart indirect talks held with Turkish mediation last year that were suspended after Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. 

But there are shorter-term goals that center on the economy.

Syria has been hit by a three-year drought and its oil reserves are running out. The economy is in transition from a socialist model to a more market-based system. U.S. sanctions set in place by the Bush administration remain an impediment to Syria’s economic well-being, and can only be lifted by Congress.

The Damascus Stock Exchange is set to open soon and Syria’s planning minister has said he hopes for $50 billion dollars in foreign investment over the next decade. A smiley face from Washington could help, according to Landis. "Syria needs new everything, new ports, new roads, a new electric grid.” 

Syria has opened new markets in Iraq, selling everything from shoes to soft drinks, socks and popped corn. “This is all promising,” Landis said. “Now, they want to get beyond that.”

There is a glittering new class of capitalist in Damascus, but also a growing gap between rich and poor.

The change in the air between Washington and Damascus, with a willingness on both sides to explore the conditions of a deal, is “the beginning of a very long, slow dance,” according to Miller.

Washington's chief goal is loosening Syria’s alliance with Iran as well as Syria’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas. But these are all big tickets items. Syria would have to be sure that the new Obama administration was indeed smart, tough, and above all else fair, before it gave way on alliances that have served Syrian interests in the turmoil of the past eight years.

Obama has made clear that Washington will stand by Israel, and Kerry acknowledged in Damascus that “we will disagree on some issues for sure."

The question is: where are the areas of agreement? And what is the price? 

In the historic market in the old city of Damascus, the goods are beautifully displayed but the prices are never marked. The values are determined anew with each negotiation.

These are early days in a difficult relationship, a getting-to-know-you moment that is a breakthrough for sure. But a deal is far from certain.

Deborah Amos, the author of "Lines in the Sand: Desert Storm and the Remaking of the Arab World," is working on a book about Iraqi refugees. She is the 2009 winner of the Weintal award for diplomatic reporting. A Mideast correspondent for NPR, she won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a Breakthru Award, and widespread recognition for her coverage of the Gulf War in 1991.