x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US to appoint ambassador to Syria

An ambassador from the US will be dispatched to Syria for the first time in four years, as part of increased US diplomatic engagement in the Middle East.

DAMASCUS // An ambassador from the United States will be dispatched to Syria for the first time in four years, as part of increased US diplomatic engagement in the Middle East and renewed efforts to bring about an elusive regional peace. The White House said yesterday it would send a state department official to fill the Damascus position, which has been left vacant since the withdrawal of the last US ambassador in 2005.

The decision was greeted in Syria as a concrete signal that the US president Barack Obama is serious about the peace process and prepared to take a different line to his predecessor, George W Bush, who froze relations with Damascus. "Sending an ambassador marks a very real and significant shift in US-Syria relations," said Tharbet Salem, a Syrian political commentator. "It shows Obama is genuine about change and he is genuine about peace. He knows that peace can only happen with Syrian involvement, which is why there has been this restoration of normal diplomatic ties.

"This is a real change because now for the first time in years Syria and America will be able to directly talk to one another and discuss matters of mutual interest. That is the only way problems can be solved. It marks a final turning of the page from the Bush years." Speaking before the formal announcement of the appointment, a senior official inside the Obama administration told the Associated Press that the strategy of isolating Syria had failed.

"The president believes that diplomatic engagement helps serve our interests, and that the current policy didn't make sense," the official said, on condition of anonymity. The US recalled its ambassador to Syria after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive Beirut car bombing that killed 22 others. Syria was widely accused of involvement in the murder, something it has always denied. A UN investigation into the killing is currently ongoing, although key suspects have recently been released, weakening the case against Syria.

A charge d'affaires has been the highest-level US diplomat in Damascus since 2005. The Bush administration also imposed economic sanctions on Damascus, accusing it of aiding insurgents in Iraq and of supporting Hamas and Hizbollah, the Palestinian and Lebanese movements that have both fought bloody wars with Israel. Washington considers the two groups to be terrorist organisations although they are widely regarded as legitimate political movements in the Middle East.

Since being sworn in as US president, Barack Obama has cautiously sought to improve ties with Syria. A flurry of US congressional visitors to Damascus were eventually followed by senior government officials, US assistant secretary of state Jeffery Feltman, and Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council. This month, George Mitchell visited Syria for talks with President Bashar Assad, the first time he had done so in his role as Mr Obama's Middle East peace envoy. He described the meeting as "serious and productive". Mr Mitchell's deployment to Damascus came well after trips to other regional capitals, an indication that while on the mend, Syrian-US relations were progressing slowly.

The renewal of economic sanctions the month prior to his visit further underscored that any change in US policy towards Damascus would not be immediate. But in addition to yesterday's ambassadorial decision there have been other clear signs of a rapprochement, including a US military delegation which met with Syrian officials to discuss co-operation on Iraq security issues. Neither Syria nor the US, once so firmly at loggerheads, has yet made any major or obvious concessions but the warming in relations has been underpinned by a number of recent developments that have built confidence and allowed some increased level of mutual trust.

The peaceful elections in Lebanon saw the US-backed political bloc win and Syria's ally Hizbollah accepted their electoral defeat with good graces. Damascus, which for decades held a controlling hand in Lebanese affairs, made a point of not interfering in the ballot or its aftermath. Syria also sought to assure the Americans that it is playing a positive role in Iraq, and is not seeking to destabilise its neighbour. Syrian officials reportedly told the US military delegation they were doing all they could to prevent Islamic extremists from crossing the border and that, rather than admonishing Damascus, Washington and Baghdad needed to assist them police the porous international boundary.

In addition, Syria has sought to help mediate talks between Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah. That divide will have to be bridged if a peace deal is to be struck. Hamas' political leadership is based in Damascus. Mr Assad has also repeated his willingness to reopen peace talks with Israel, at a time when the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, has found itself at odds with Washington over continued settlement expansion.

Such conciliatory gestures from Syria were widely seen here as being reciprocated by Mr Obama in his landmark speech at Cairo University three weeks ago. In it he spoke of Palestinian rights and, while stressing America's alliance with Israel would remain strong, he insisted that Tel Aviv must stop building on occupied land in breach of international law. No clear timetable has been announced for the new ambassador's arrival. US laws and diplomatic convention mean that the name will first be submitted to Syria, with Damascus given an opportunity to object to the nominee. Following that, the state department's choice for ambassador will be put before the US congress for approval, a process that can take months.

The Obama administration's decision to send an ambassador to Syria is likely to raise some controversy and may face opposition within congress. Earlier this year, when US sanctions on Syria were up for renewal, some congressional members urged the White House to maintain a tough line on Damascus. psands@thenational.ae