Monday, May 7, 2007

Damascus moves to center stage

With Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, relations between the two countries have been turned on their head. The United States' anti-Syria rhetoric is being replaced by the grudging acceptance that Damascus, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, has a lot to offer on Iraq

By Sami Moubayed
Asia Times

"......Last week's meeting at the Sharm al-Sheikh resort in Egypt to discuss Iraq was a turning point in Syrian-US relations, described by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal as "a new thing that we welcome".

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Thursday. It was the first encounter of a US and a Syrian foreign minister since Colin Powell went to Damascus in 2003, and Rice's first encounter with the Syrians since the Bush team came into office in 2001.

Moualem said the 30-minute meeting was "frank and constructive"; Rice proposed that the Americans join the Syrian-Iraqi security committees that have been at work on border security since 2003. Moualem agreed, stressing, however, the need to strengthen political and diplomatic ties between Damascus and Washington, and in restoring a US ambassador to Syria.

His tone echoed that of Rice on several issues, mainly, implementing Maliki's Baghdad security plan, disarming the militias, amending the constitution, and revisiting the de-Ba'athification laws.

Syria proposed a timetable for withdrawal of US troops, but only Iran supported this suggestion, and the final resolution of the conference came out instead with a vague statement saying that withdrawal is conditional on the training of Iraqi troops.

At her press conference, Rice steered clear of any anti-Syrian rhetoric, stressing that the US still has diplomatic ties with Damascus. All press reports confirm that the issue of Lebanon, which aggravates Syrian-US relations at this stage, was not raised by Moualem and Rice.....

In March, European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana went to Syria, embraced the Syrians and offered a set of incentives to bring Damascus back into the international community, on the condition that it cooperates with Europe on Lebanon. Many diplomats and people in the Arab world laugh when the international tribunal is mentioned, saying that it most certainly will - when created - be hollowed out from any anti-Syrian material.

Interestingly, there is a lot of talk in Damascus that US presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton will be stopping by in Syria. This speculation was heightened when Clinton defended Pelosi's visit to Syria in a radio interview. Clinton said the Speaker had done "the right thing", adding, "We have to engage these countries."

Bush, however, said meetings like those of Solana and Pelosi simply "do not work" because they have been tried in the past by US officials. Yet last week it was not the Democrat Pelosi meeting with Assad, it was none other than Rice meeting with Syria's minister of foreign affairs.

And Rice means Bush. Something must have changed in Damascus - and Washington. The answers can be found in Baghdad, and almost equally in Riyadh. The more Syria can offer in Iraq - and cooperate with Saudi Arabia - the more its isolation will come to a grinding halt."

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