x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A cool welcome in Syria for US envoy

Analysis As the Obama administration confirms its nomination of a new ambassador to Damascus, some Syrians say the post is nothing but a mouthpiece for the US.

DAMASCUS // Five years after withdrawing its ambassador to Syria, the United States has finally confirmed the nomination of Robert Ford to the high-profile posting. Although the announcement sparked much speculation about an intensified Middle East diplomatic campaign by the Obama administration, there is a consensus here that nothing much is likely to change. Foreign diplomats, Syrian opposition groups and regime acolytes do not usually agree on very much. But they were all united in the belief that Mr Ford's arrival here - assuming he passes through US Senate confirmation hearings - will mean little beyond a fairly hollow symbolism.

"It will be better to have an ambassador here than not, I suppose, but I'm sure it won't amount to much," said Mustafa Qalaji, the secretary general of the Syrian Democratic Party, one of the country's illegal and weak independent political opposition groups. "The problem hasn't been the lack of an ambassador; the problem is the ambassador is always a salesman for bad US policies. "We've not seen anything sensible from them in decades and Obama has been the same. He's done lots of talking but we've not seen any serious action."

Ammar Qurabi, the head of a human rights campaign group in Syria - another organisation that is technically illegal, although it has applied for an operating licence - was of similarly low expectations. "No one I know has taken US ambassadors in the Middle East seriously since the 1960s. We realised back then that the ambassador doesn't make decisions on policy, the White House does. If the Americans are going to do something new for Middle East peace - and I doubt that'll ever happen - the US ambassador here will be the last to know."

Barack Obama was elected president promising to resume the dialogue that had been abandoned by the Bush administration. It was George W Bush who recalled the US ambassador from Damascus in 2005, citing Syria's support for "terror". Last summer, Mr Obama made a speech at Cairo university - well received in the Middle East - which, he said, marked a new era of relations between the United States and the Muslim world. That was followed by a widely advertised effort to revive the long comatose peace process, with Washington taking the unusual step of drawing a line in the sand for Israel over its continued construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

It was a demand seen as a litmus test of the new administration's willingness and ability to stand up to Israel. That test failed quickly, in the eyes of Arab countries and Europe: the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has refused to a total settlement freeze and suffered no diplomatic punishment from the US as a result. With the US administration unable to achieve even such a modest goal in the region, there is no reason to expect a new ambassador in Damascus can bring about any major changes, said a pro-regime lawyer, Umran Zaubie.

"We welcome the return of an American ambassador to Syria and we take it as an acknowledgement that the past policy of trying to isolate Damascus has failed," he said. "But the basic issue is that peace will be impossible without fairness and the US continues to support Israel in everything it does, even if it is wrong." Israel and Syria remain in a state of war over Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights. Various peace initiatives over the past four decades have failed.

If the new ambassador to Syria is able to profoundly change US policy towards Israel, he might have a real effect on the region, Mr Zaubie said. Otherwise the current, long impasse will remain unbroken. That analysis was largely shared by European diplomats in Damascus. "Cynics say Obama is already washed up in the Middle East, optimists say he hasn't really started yet," said one political adviser working at a European mission in Syria. "I would say there has been no real US engagement. Middle East peace goes nowhere without the US and they had to do more with Netanyahu about those settlements.

"We have many policy problems with Syria, but there is no way the Syrians are going to move unless they see the Americans are serious with Israel. Obama has shown he is not serious." Another senior EU diplomat said the job of the new US ambassador had been made all but impossible by the "amazing" failure of the White House to stand firm on the issue of Israeli settlements. "The ambassador will go into his meetings with people who believe he is backed by a president who is good with words but light on action," the diplomat said. "They are very good words, but they are just words nonetheless.

"Syria is not irrational about these things; it will wonder if it can trust any guarantees the US gives on peace and will it probably conclude it can't." A senior US official, William Burns, was in Damascus yesterday for a meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, ostensibly to deal with the now usual matters of Middle East peace, isolating Iran, plus the always thorny issue of Iraq. It remains unclear, however, if Washington has even decided on what its policies towards Damascus will be. According to one US state department official working on the Syria file, there had been a "ferocious" debate among policymakers about what action to take.

"It's frustrating and painful and everyone is upset about it [the lack of clear direction]," the official said. "We're still not sure what return there will be on the investment if we go in for a serious engagement. "But in terms of everyone having lower expectations, that's not a bad thing. When the re-engagement was announced, people got carried away. Now perhaps there can be some sober movement forwards."