Barack Obama made the first tentative steps toward opening lines of communication with the Syrian regime in the past week. In Sharm el-Sheikh, Hillary Clinton exchanged a handshake with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Contacts were also reestablished in Washington, as Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary for the Near East, held a two-hour meeting with Syrian Amb. Imad Moustapha. Today, Clinton tapped Feltman and National Security Council aide Daniel Shapiro as envoys to Damascus.
While the Obama administration has proven its willingness to engage with Syria, it is also signaling that negotiations do not mean that the United States is surrendering to Syrian demands. Clinton downplayed the possibility of a speedy improvement of U.S.-Syrian ties at a press conference in Jerusalem, saying that "we have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be."
In his discussions with Moustapha, Feltman raised the issue of Syrian support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the regime's meddling in Lebanon, and its worsening domestic human rights situation -- not issues that top Damascus's preferred agenda for U.S.-Syrian negotiations.
The very presence of Feltman (shown above being burned in effigy by Hezbollah supporters) in U.S.-Syrian negotiations is also a message. Feltman is a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, and was consequently the point man for George W. Bush's hawkish Lebanon policy. In Beirut, he has a reputation as a strong and energetic supporter of Lebanon's pro-Western, anti-Syrian political coalition. He was a bête noir of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who took to calling Lebanon's anti-Syrian government "Feltman's government," rather than the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. This antipathy no doubt extends to the Syrian regime.
Nevertheless, Obama's decision to establish Feltman as a primary U.S. interlocutor with Syria is a welcome sign that he is approaching a possible rapprochement with few illusions. Syria will try to leverage a decrease in tensions with the United States to attract business to the country, and gradually break down the economic sanctions regime erected against it. Feltman has the reputation to dissuade the Syrian regime that it can get something for nothing. Syria has to realize that it must take tangible steps for reconciliation to take place, not just engage in the process of negotiations. For Obama's first foray into the Arab world, this is a good start.
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