Kerry's Unusual Role in Mediating U.S.-Syria Relations
The long-stalled U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria is moving forward -- thanks to an unusual bit of mediation by Sen. John Kerry.
A mini-breakthrough in U.S.-Syria relations came Sunday in a telephone conversation between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, according to U.S. and Syrian sources. Moallem said that Syria would welcome a visit by U.S. Central Command officers to Damascus this month to discuss joint efforts to stabilize Iraq. In return, Clinton promised to develop a joint “road map” for improving bilateral relations between the two countries.
Kerry reportedly played a key role in breaking the logjam between the two countries, which had worsened after the Obama administration announced last month that it was renewing sanctions against Damascus under the Syria Accountability Act. The Syrians had been expecting that move, but they were upset by a presidential statement accompanying the renewal, which repeated harsh Bush administration language that said Syria posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” The Syrians said that unless this sharp language was withdrawn and the bilateral relationship improved, they wouldn’t provide the security assistance that Centcom wanted.
Enter the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
According to Syrian diplomatic sources, Kerry and Syrian President Bashar Assad have been developing a relationship of “respect and friendship,” including a long private dinner between the two men and their wives at the Narenj restaurant in the old city of Damascus when Kerry was there in March.
Kerry is said to have called Assad twice over the past two weeks to explore ways to improve relations; at the same time, he was talking to the Obama White House and State Department. In these and other conversations, apparently, the gap between the two countries was narrowed. Kerry’s office had no comment today.
The result of this mediation was Sunday’s carefully scripted conversation between Clinton and Moallem. Clinton told her Syrian counterpart, “We will be prepared to discuss with you all issues related to Syrian-American relations,” according to one transcript of the conversation. The U.S. pledged to “focus our efforts on forming a new sort of relationship,” according to this transcript. There was no pledge about when the U.S. will send an ambassador back to Damascus; the ambassador was withdrawn after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, an attack for which many Lebanese blamed Syria.
The road map toward better relations will be discussed when Sen. George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East, visits Damascus, probably this week. He will be the most senior U.S. official to visit Syria since relations went into the deep freeze three four years ago.
The Syria opening is part of a larger effort toward engagement by the Obama administration in the Middle East. President Obama will take that message to the heart of the Arab world Thursday in a Cairo speech that will discuss America’s desire for better relations, including contact with longtime adversaries, such as Syria and Iran.
Kerry’s role in all this is intriguing for two reasons: First, it shows that the former Democratic presidential candidate is carving out a role for himself as a foreign-policy player -- courageously taking on issues that are sensitive in political and policy terms. Second, it shows a fluid and creative foreign-policy process in the Obama administration, in which people outside the White House inner circle are able to get the president’s attention and push the envelope.
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