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The U.S. will find Syria enigmatic, mysterious and deeply skeptical

I left Palmyra early in the morning, racing towards the Euphrates in Syria's eastern desert.

After about two hours on a road running through flat scrubby desert, the ancient ruins of Rasafa rose out of the sandy earth in front of me.

The fortified city was originally built in the 3rd century by the Romans. It soon became the regional center of Christianity. As its history wore on, Rasafa found itself occupied by the Byzantines, the Persians, the Arabs, and the Abbasids. Today, the city is an odd relic of history, half covered in dirt, slowly eroding in the desert sands.

Modern-day Syria is as enigmatic and mysterious as many of the ancient ruins of its desert. Shunned by the U.S., the country is nonetheless at a strategic geographic crossroad, a long border with Iraq on its east, a complex relationship with Lebanon to the west, a contentious history with Israel in the southwest.

And now the Obama administration must develop a strategy to deal with a country that few adequately understand and that holds a curious place in U.S. diplomacy.

Often put on lists of rogue states that include Iran and North Korea, Syria nonetheless maintains diplomatic relations with Washington. High profile government officials from the U.S. have made the trip to Damascus in recent years to meet with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited several years ago, while Sen. John Kerry came earlier this year.

Syria, which fought with Israel in the 1967 war, has yet to make peace with its neighbor. But aided by a politically and religiously moderate Turkey, the two nations are engaged in peace talks, with Israel demanding that Syria recognize its legitimacy and Syria hoping for the return of the Golan Heights.

But as I've raced around the country, from Damascus to the Euphrates to Aleppo, I've seen from the people a commitment to peace with Israel and better relations with the U.S. coupled with a more militant ideology with regard to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the U.S. war in Iraq.

A taxi driver from Palmyra named Ahmed stressed to me the other day the importance of peace with Israel. Getting back the Golan must be a priority, and he said he believed that a peace between the two countries would open up the Syrian economy. He said, though, that he had no interest in the two countries opening up trade relations.

Despite this conciliatory tone, Ahmed acknowledged and expressed a sort of righteous indignation at the fact that his country has helped arm Hezbollah in south Lebanon.

"It's OK for the U.S. to send arms to Israel, so why can't we send arms to Hezbollah?" he asked.

Getting a read on the Syrian President is a major challenge for an outsider. People here worry that criticizing their government may land them in trouble.

Indeed, pictures of the president and his late father, Hafez, adorn walls on streets, offices and homes. And though his grip on power was uncertain when he took the reins in 2000, Assad seems to have consolidated his rule. Several Syrians, in more candid moments, have expressed great satisfaction at the president's domestic policies, like wage increases and education initiatives, but they blame him for Syria's international isolation.

With regard to U.S. politics, there seems to be greater relief that George W. Bush has left the scene than that Obama has arrived.

"Bush was no good," a retired farmer on a bus to Aleppo told me. "But Obama's still young. When he gets older, maybe he'll start shooting people, too."

This, in apparent reference to the war in Iraq, is representative of a deeply rooted skepticism held by many Syrians of U.S. motives. With U.S.-backed Israel to the southwest and U.S. troops to the east in Iraq, Syrians feel cornered.

If the peace talks with Israel get serious and if Obama follows through on his campaign promise to open a higher level line of communication with the Assad regime, Syrian politics and its place in the region could change quickly and dramatically. And with it, so might Syrian attitudes. But for one of the oldest civilizations on earth, nothing will ever move too quickly.