Connect to share and comment

US to Syria: let the bargaining begin

Opinion: The dispatch of two US envoys to Damascus is no guarantee of improved relations.

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.