After The Obama-Abbas Meeting: A Palestinian Stuck between Washington and Tel Aviv
Video and Full Transcript of Obama-Abbas Meeting (28 May)
Much has changed in US foreign policy since the Bush Administration pulled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since the advent of the Obama Administration, not only the hopes of change in US-Syrian relations but the quest to unblock the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has brought the prospect of dialogue.
The latest signal came on Thursday when two Democratic Congressmen, Senator Edward E. Kaufman of Delaware and Representative Tim Waltz of Minnesota visited Syrian President Assad. According to Syria's official Arab News Agency, talks focused on "the necessity to remove obstacles that hinder relations and to promote stability in the Middle East". Specifically, the exchange points to a visit to Damascus by President Obama's envoy George Mitchell in June.
The Kaufman-Waltz visit is the fourth by US officials or legislators since January. Three days after the hard-line statement of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “Peace will only be in exchange for peace.”, Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, met Assad.
Assad's comment after this meeting that he wanted to meet Obama personally was matched by the US Embassy's statement that the talks were constructive on Syrian-Lebanese relations, security on the Syria-Iraq border, and the situation in Gaza. On 5 May, two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, made their second journey to Damascus in two months and found some “common ground” with the Syrians.
The 2nd Feltman-Shapiro visit was particularly significant as it came on the
same day that Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met to re-confirm their ‘strategic alliance.’ Contrary to the claim of many that this was a declaration of Syria's "strategic needs" being met by Tehran; Assad's manoevure was more a temporary alignment with no advance on the "road map" of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace processes. In the absence of tangible steps, Damascus is covering itself against any unilateral concessions.
Hence, the second visit of Feltman and Shapiro was needed to maintain close contact between Washington and Damascus until the peace process could be restarted. Other regional leaders have also contributed. On May 11, the Jordanian King Abdullah visited Damascus, as he and Assad affirmed the need for a comprehensive solution on the basis of Israeli and Palestinian states in a regional context. The newly-appointed Syrian ambassador to Ankara said on 12 May that Damascus was ready to resume Turkish-mediated indirect talks with Israel, despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that he would not cede the Golan Heights.
In contrast to the Bush Administration's attempt to get the "right" Middle East through exclusion of those whom it did not like or trust, the Obama Administration in four months has rebuilt relationships with key leaders. Still, the outcome of those initial breakthroughs awaits an even bigger signal: the US President's speech in Cairo next Thursday.