Five years after the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Syria, President Obama has nominated Stephen Ford to become the new U.S. ambassador to Damascus. The post has been empty since 2005, after a U.N. investigation implicated Syria in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. Hariri’s murder led to the humiliating withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and launched the so-called Cedar Revolution, which dramatically redrew the political landscape of the country.
George Schultz once said that much of diplomacy is merely “weeding the garden.” Syria’s garden has been untended for five years and is overgrown with weeds.
Ford is a well-respected career diplomat, a former ambassador to Algeria and current Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He is a fluent Arabic speaker who knows his way around the Middle East and whose nomination is fully supported by the Syrian government. There is every reason to believe that his appointment will be swiftly approved by Congress.
The question is not whether restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus is a good idea. Considering how important Syria is to America’s foreign policy and national security interests, it is no exaggeration to say that this could be the most important regional relationship for the United States. The real question is what took so long?
When President Obama took office a year ago, he made diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria the cornerstone of his Middle East strategy. While his repeated overtures to Iran have thus far been rebuffed (thanks in no small part to the civil strife that has rocked that country since the disputed elections last June), Syria has been frantically trying to reengage the United States for years. The country’s young dictator Bashar al-Assad has made a number of high profile overtures to both the Bush and the Obama administrations, all of which have gone more or less unheeded.
Among foreign policy circles, it is common to refer to Syria as “low-hanging fruit”—an easy win for an Obama administration desperate for some kind of diplomatic success in the region after a truly disastrous start dealing with the Middle East peace process. Recall that President Obama came into office promising full engagement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Unlike his predecessor, who took a hands-off policy when it came to Middle East peace (with catastrophic results), Obama vowed to be an evenhanded mediator between the two sides, publicly stating on numerous occasions that he would not abide by anything less than a total freeze of Israeli settlements. So far, the response from the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Obama’s demands has been the diplomatic equivalent of “Go screw yourself, Mr. President.” Rather than forcing Israel to deal with the consequences of its intransigence, the Obama administration has utterly kowtowed to the Netanyahu government (when was the last time the word “settlements” came out of the president’s mouth?), demonstrating to the world just who wears the pants in the relationship between Israel and the United States.
Yet reengaging the Syrians may not only give Obama a much-needed diplomatic victory, it could conceivably lead to a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and Syria, which in turn may reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In fact, Syria could become the linchpin for nearly all of Obama’s foreign-policy goals in the Middle East.
The United States would love to wean Syria from its relationship with Iran (by all accounts a marriage of convenience) and convince Damascus to cease its military and financial support of Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.S. also needs Syrian support in maintaining stability in Iraq as U.S. troops begin the long and arduous process of exiting the country (as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker, Syrian intelligence has already been cooperating with the U.S. on this front).
For its part, Syria wants to be taken seriously by the United States as an important regional power. More urgently, it wants an end to U.S. sanctions, which have badly crippled the country’s economy. Bashar al-Assad has also stated his willingness to pursue peace talks with Israel, as long as any agreement includes the return of the Golan Heights, the highly contested strip of mostly farmland that Israel seized in the 1967 war. Although international law recognizes the land as belonging to Syria, Netanyahu has openly rejected any land for peace deal and indicated absolutely no willingness to give up the Golan Heights.
These issues may seem intractable but according to Edward P. Djerejian, the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, they are no more insoluble than the issues that divided Syria, Israel, and the United States two decades ago. Djerejian should know. He served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1988-1991, at a time in which the two countries had an extremely adversarial relationship. And yet Djerejian and his boss, Secretary of State James Baker, managed to engage the Syrian leadership in tough diplomatic negotiations that not only helped end the civil war in Lebanon but also led to the release of American hostages held in Beirut. Even more remarkable is the fact that Baker and Djerejian were able to get Syria to join the Desert Storm coalition against its fellow Baathist regime in Iraq. Djerejian, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, even convinced Damascus to engage in direct negotiations with Israel, which led to the Madrid peace conference.
“We got [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir to come to Madrid. We got Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn,” says Djerejian, who writes about his experiences in the recently released book Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador's Journey Through the Middle East. “The art of diplomacy is to create a situation in which it is difficult for the participating parties to say no. That’s what we did in 1991. I believe that the Obama administration can do the same in 2010.”
Of course, neither of those historic events led to a lasting peace agreement between the parties involved, though they did form a strong foundation for future negotiations. In any case, Djerjian believes that the Obama administration is in a unique position to take advantage of the profound changes in the region in the wake of 9/11. He thinks that Ford’s ambassadorship could prepare the way for a high level visit to Damascus by the secretary of State. It could even lay the groundwork for presidential summit to be held outside of Syria, perhaps in Ankara, though that depends in large part on political will in Washington, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.
“The president is a very intelligent man,” Djerjian says. “He has a very strong secretary of State in Hillary Clinton. [Obama’s Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell is a topnotch negotiator who knows the issues. But they have to be in lock step. There can’t be a shadow of difference between the three for these negotiations to work.”
George Schultz once said that much of diplomacy is merely “weeding the garden.” The problem is that Syria’s garden has been untended for five years and is overgrown with weeds. Whether Ford can be an able gardener remains to be seen. But at least the Obama administration recognizes that the potential harvest to be reaped from diplomatic engagement with Syria is too valuable to be ignored any longer.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.