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Tom Dine gets to know Damascus

Advocates of engagement with Syria have an unlikely ally — one of America's most high-profile pro-Israel lobbyists.

A general view of the historical Umayyad mosque in old Damascus city Sept. 25, 2007, during iftar when Muslims break fast during the holy month of Ramadan. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Tom Dine is an unlikely advocate for engagement with Syria.

In 1980 he took over as the executive director of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Over the next 13 years he transformed the pro-Israel lobby into a major political force in U.S. politics, a cool practitioner in the uses of political power.

Now, he has a very different cause.

“Our mission is to normalize Syrian relations by December 2009. In a normal relationship you have two embassies with ambassadorial leadership and political and economic relations,” he told me during his second trip to Damascus last October.

Dine has spent the last year in intense conversations in Damascus that often last long into the night, trying to lay the vital groundwork for improved relations. He leads an American-Syrian working group that was the brainchild of an organization called Search for Common Ground.

The Washington-based group has a long history in international conflict resolution, and it reached out to Dine to lead a new initiative on Syria last year. The working group includes eight high-level people from each country, including former American ambassadors and advisors to the Syrian government.

In 2007, when Dine was first approached by John Marks, the president of Common Ground, he was intrigued. But as the high-profile former leader of the most pro-Israel organization in the United States, Dine asked a pertinent question, “How are you going to get me a visa to Damascus?”

Marks convinced the Syrians that Dine was the kind of guy they needed to know in Washington. After his first trip in March 2007, Dine was a believer in a new U.S. approach to Syria, in part motivated by his fury over Bush administration policies that he believed had been an unmitigated disaster in the Middle East. It was time to try to clean up the mess.

“Syria is a pivotal country. And it’s there to be done," he told me after this fifth trip to Damascus. “It’s been a long freeze. Relations are still sour, practically in the basement; we are trying to figure out how we climb out of this.”

Dine is convinced that there is still strong resistance at the State Department to sending a U.S. ambassador back to Damascus. So, he has done what he does best — networking in Washington, making the case for Syrian engagement and arranging meetings for Syrians on the working group with members of Congress.