It was a coincidence, but a revealing one, that the Obama administration named a new ambassador to Syria shortly before this Sunday's fifth anniversary of the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The previous ambassador was recalled after that killing, not to be replaced until now. Much about the American-Syrian relationship can be encapsulated in the circumstances of the appointment.
@body arnhem:The new emissary is Robert Ford, a former ambassador to Algeria. Mr Ford is not a high-profile figure, and that suits the administration fine, as it does not want President Bashar Assad's regime to confuse renewed ties at the ambassadorial level with warm relations. The Syrians know that Mr Ford's clout at home will be relatively limited, and that he will have to pass through a man greatly disliked in Damascus, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, who was the US ambassador to Lebanon at the time of the Hariri assassination.
Mr Ford's appointment took more than a year in coming, a long time when considering that President Barack Obama made "engagement" of Syria and Iran a centrepiece of his foreign policy campaign promises. The US administration continues to distrust Syria, but realises that an ambassador will give it greater sway in Damascus. The relationship will improve, but Syria is unlikely to regain the prominent role it had in American regional calculations during the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was in office.
The obstacles exist at three levels - the personal, the institutional and the political. At the personal level, Mr Feltman will be an influential sceptic at the State Department. He witnessed Syrian violence in Lebanon from up close, and never hid his approval for the popular revolt against Syria following the Hariri assassination. The ambassador so irritated Damascus that in the leaked minutes of a meeting between Mr Assad and the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon in April 2007, Syria's foreign minister Walid al Muallim was heard saying that Mr Feltman had to leave Lebanon, and that he was prepared to offer him a vacation in Hawaii. When a US embassy vehicle was bombed in January 2008 in a Beirut suburb, the minister's implied threat sounded less anodyne.
Mr Feltman will ask the right questions of Damascus, but also believes that ties need to move away from where they were. In this he echoes Mr Obama and the secretary of state Hillary Clinton. However, institutionally, Syria still enjoys little goodwill at the State Department or in Congress. Its ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha, is mistrusted in Washington and may soon be sent home. The Syrians rarely make sympathetic Americans look good. The regime has offered no substantive compromises to the US in the Middle East, which will hamper bilateral relations.
On the Palestinian front, Syria supports Hamas at a time when the Obama administration is trying to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. There is a structural problem here that will be difficult to resolve. The Syrians want control of the Palestinian card, especially the means to torpedo agreements with which they are unhappy, as leverage in their own track with Israel. At the same time, Hamas is a strong Iranian card, with Tehran offering the group weapons and financing. This makes Syria uneasy, since it may make Hamas less amenable to Syrian pressure.
Mr Assad's dilemma is this: he will not break with Hamas or push it towards less intransigence because that would leave him vulnerable politically; but if that's the case, it means he cannot guarantee the group will be flexible if required for Syria to progress in a dialogue with Israel. In Lebanon, too, Washington and Damascus will find common ground elusive. Against American desires, Syria has reasserted considerable power in Beirut thanks to its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. However, Damascus also backs Hizbollah militarily and politically, and here Mr Assad won't give anything up. Officials in Washington and Israel have warned that Syria might be targeted in a future Lebanese-Israeli war, but the Syrians still believe that such a war, by highlighting the Hizbollah menace to regional order, could push the Arabs and the international community to approve of even greater Syrian dominance in Lebanon as a counterweight.
As for the Hariri murder, which Syria almost certainly perpetrated, we should expect no imminent breakthroughs in the international Lebanese tribunal established near The Hague. Indictments have yet to be brought, and may not be this year amid signs of a crisis in the judicial process. This can only reinforce Syria's obduracy. Both the Palestinian and Lebanese situations highlight how little room Syria has to change tack on Iran. Ultimately, Hizbollah is more an Iranian asset than a Syrian one, and Hamas may be too. But Mr Assad has no incentive to downgrade his links with these groups or with Tehran, since he can run up his price with the West and the Arab states by maintaining them. Syria is only pursued when it becomes a problem, and its regime has played the game well by exporting instability.
Ironically, this may help Mr Assad with Washington in Iraq. With the administration eager to withdraw, it has sought to avert a confrontation between Iraq and Syria over the recent bomb attacks in Baghdad. The Iraqis accuse Syrian-backed Baathists of being responsible, in partnership with al Qa'eda. The US, with its eyes on the exit, has avoided conditioning improved relations with Damascus on a new Syrian approach to Iraq.
Mr Assad will not get much out of the US because he will not give much in return. Syria remains a secondary regional actor; it can destabilise but not build politically. For it to be taken seriously, this must change. But we must also seriously consider that Syria is incapable of changing. Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut