When Syrians talk of the Middle East peace process, they typically do so in tired, jaded tones of a people who have heard many empty words.
This time, Syria sees a chance for peace
DAMASCUS // When Syrians talk of the Middle East peace process, they typically do so in the tired, jaded tones of a people who have heard many empty words on the subject but never seen any real substance. The so-called peace process has ebbed and flowed with all the fake suspense and phoney unpredictability of a bad soap opera: first the back channel talks, then the build-up and fanfare of a big summit that inevitably fails because none of the parties actually agree on anything.
Damascus therefore concluded, with some justification, that both Israel and America were not serious about a fair regional peace that in any way respects the covenants of international law. But as George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, met Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, in Damascus yesterday, there was finally a genuine sense of optimism that this time things might actually be different. That against all the odds some progress might, at last, be possible.
"Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace," Mr Mitchell said after what he described as "substantive discussions" with Mr Assad. "We seek to build on this effort to establish a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interest. The United States looks forward to this continued dialogue." For Syria, and much of the Arab world, America is seen as the critical factor in the success or failure of peace efforts: if the US were only less biased towards its great ally Israel and instead played a more impartial role, peace would come.
When Barack Obama was elected to the White House he quickly made it clear that the Middle East would be a priority. While his message of change, of hope, may have resonated in the US and Europe, here it was taken with more than a pinch of salt. After all, Mr Obama had remained silent on the war in Gaza and, during his presidential campaigning, had referred to Jerusalem, including the occupied eastern part of the city, as the undivided capital of Israel, something even George W Bush had never done.
The decision to appoint Mr Mitchell, a veteran of Middle East peace talks and the successful Northern Ireland peace agreement, was broadly welcomed. Yet, once again, the Syrians had reasons for scepticis. In his first visits to the region, Mr Mitchell pointedly did not go to Damascus. With Syria a central actor in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, his absence was seen as a signal that the Americans under Mr Obama might be trying to bypass Damascus, just as they had under his predecessor, who froze diplomatic ties with Syria and imposed economic sanctions.
The Syrian authorities have long insisted that any peace agreement must be comprehensive and that it must deal with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Tel Aviv's illegal annexation of the Golan Heights - territory seized from Syria in the 1967 six-day war - and the ill-defined Shebaa Farms border area between Lebanon, Israel and Syria. These three issues have a tidy nexus in Syria, with its close ties to the Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups Hamas and Hizbollah, as well as Iran - leverage that gives Syria a strong capability of playing either a spoiling or positive role in the region, at least as far as traditional US and Israeli ambitions are concerned.
There was one chink of light for Syria in the early days and months of the Obama administration, with the US state department sending Jeffery Feltman to Syria, an act renewing high-level diplomatic links between Washington and Damascus. However, that resumption of diplomatic ties had to be balanced against a series of starkly ominous facts: the continued refusal by the US to send an ambassador to Damascus; increasing pressure on Syria over an alleged secret nuclear programme; claims by American intelligence officials that Syria was again allowing insurgents to cross its border into Iraq to attack US and Iraqi forces.
On top of that, last month the White House renewed sanctions on Damascus for another year and did so in the most uncompromising terms, saying Syria was still the source of a national emergency, and had failed to take actions against terrorists. Even the most optimistic of Syrians were, by this point, starting to view the new and hopeful Obama era as more of the same. The threats and accusations may not have been as plainly worded as under Mr Bush, but there seemed to be little substantive policy shift.
Then, however, came Mr Obama's long-awaited keynote policy speech in Cairo on June 4 and with it a feeling that this time America was prepared to take a harder, fairer line against Israel. The continued illegal expansion of Israeli settlements had to stop, he said and, while critical of Palestinian rejectionists and insistent on Israel's right to security, he also spoke of Palestinian rights. It was a speech that put the US government publicly at odds with the right-wing Israeli government, and that personally put the US president and his prestige on the line against that of his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Such schisms come about only once a decade or so. Even Hamas was impressed. The arrival of Mr Mitchell in Damascus does not in and of itself change any of the basic and thus far intractable elements of the war-and-peace equation, all of which are well known by the various parties involved in this particular mess. Syria will still do a deal with Israel only if it involves a complete return of the Golan territories, something the Israelis continue to refuse to do, citing security concerns.
The Palestinians are politically divided, want a viable state, and continue to demand the right to return for refugees, something else Israeli will never concede. But yesterday Mr Mitchell, the president's personal envoy to the region, had a chance to sit in a room and talk face to face with Mr Assad. If he could persuade the Syrian that this time there is good faith on the US side and that the Americans are now serious about a fair, comprehensive regional agreement, he might just find that the Syrians are also prepared to act constructively and in good faith on a US-led push for peace.
If those two elements can be put in place, yesterday's meeting in Damascus will be more than simply another piece of symbolic diplomacy; it will be a crucial, vital step in cutting through the complex knot of interwoven problems that continue to paralyse the Middle East. Mr Mitchell's visit to Damascus yesterday could even turn out to be one of the essential keys to unlocking a long-imprisoned Middle East peace.