Tom Dine gets to know Damascus

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.

In Damascus, the late-night sessions often involve long conversations explaining the mechanics of U.S. policies, and the internal dynamics of the administration and the State Department to Syrians who know little about the inside workings of Washington.

“They think that all Obama has to do is wave a magic wand and the sanctions against Syria will disappear. That’s what their strong man does,” said Dine, referring to his explanation that lifting sanctions is a complicated process that requires congressional approval.

“Syrians are pragmatic, but it’s a matter of building trust," he said. “We have to go slow, but the first steps are talking and talking leads to trust.”

The political atmosphere has changed considerably since Dine’s first tentative meetings in Syria. Barack Obama has moved quickly to change the tone, if not the policies, of an administration that had put the Middle East at the top of the foreign policy agenda, by reaching out to friends and foes alike.

The Egyptians and the Saudis have come on board, talking to the Syrians again because of three “I”s: Iran, Israel and Iraq.

Iran’s growing influence in the region, the uncertainties over the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the possibility of a right-wing government in Israel has put a premium on Arab solidarity.

It’s no secret that the subtext for these warm embraces is to distance Damascus from Tehran. That’s what the Saudis want. That’s what the Obama administration wants, too. The polarization in the region — driven, in part, by the Bush administration — pushed Syria ever closer to Iran in recent years.

But why is Tom Dine so interested?

“I’m not doing this for Syria. I’m doing this for the United States. This is how I define American interests,” he said.

He spent more than a decade making Israel’s case in Washington and feels his views are in line with important players in Israeli politics.

“The most credible institution in the country is for it. It’s the military, it’s the current defense minister, it’s former military personnel who realize that the name of the game is Iran, so you go for a treaty with Syria.”

Bringing Syria in from the cold could prove to be a difficult task, but Dine has said before that if you sit on the sidelines you have no voice.

“Before I die I want to see a Syrian-Israel peace treaty,” he said.

The new policymakers in the White House have taken the first steps in reversing Bush policies, but for now, the specific plan for reengagement remains unclear. We will have to wait for a policy review to know whether the new approach is a tactic or a different strategy. In the meantime, Tom Dine is helping to lay the groundwork for engagement.

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about Syria:

US to Syria: let the bargaining begin

Obama and the "reset" button