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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 The Syrians said that unless this sharp language was withdrawn and the bilateral relationship improved, they wouldn’t provide the security assistance that Centcom wanted.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.

By David Ignatius  | June 1, 2009; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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"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."
-- Ignatius.

Is this the reason the Syrians turned their back and allowed Tunisian terrorists into Iraq in April when they killed hundreds?

Posted by: hotdad14 | June 1, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

As Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee isn't this what Kerry should be doing? Otherwise, the taxpayers have paid for a trip to Syria for nothing.

Posted by: paris1969 | June 1, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

This just shows how wrong American policy had been toward Syria. America had messed up its relationship with the Arabs because previous administration where looking at the middle east through Israeli eyes and not on the basis of US interest. Once American policy is liberated and American diplomats begin to talk to their Arab counter part with open mind they will find the Arabs receptive.
Syrian- American relations are crucial to understanding the Middle East if only because Syrian policies is much in tune with popular sentiment in the Arab world. The American may like talking to Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia because they are accommodating to American demand and tend to do as they are told, but this distort the real picture before the planners of foreign policy because it creates the illusion of all is well in Arab- American relations when in fact the opposite is true.
Syrian foreign policies is a more accurate reflection of the mood of the Arab world toward America than any other country in the Arab world, and if American policy makers truly want to gauge Arab public mood then Syria is the place.
America did not do itself a favor when Obama decided to renew sanctions against Damascus under the Syria Accountability Act. That act was promoted by Israel with total disregard to American interest.
Syrian policies had not changed since the arrival of Obama nor are they likely to change in the future because the constitute a reasonable views of a country that had part of its territories illegally occupied by Israel. What is unreasonable, is American foreign policy which tend to blame the victim that to punish the aggressor.
Wake up America, open your eyes. The Arabs had never been your enemies. Israeli inspired policies had caused you enough misery in the past. Most of your present trouble in the world where caused by your misguided policies of the past and Israel has been instrumental in bringing about the so many challenges that you currently face in the ME.
Ezzat Tamimi - London

Posted by: iztamimi | June 1, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

And, perhaps, third, it shows how well the key players in the foreign policy structure work together: a president with an open mind, a secretary of state with a results oriented agenda rather than a power consolidating one, and a senate chairman focused on pragmatic movement based on personal relationships; all working together in a well-coordinated team approach.

Oh, but we couldn't slant it that way, could we? That might be positive reportage rather than divisive punditry.


Posted by: 33rdStreet | June 1, 2009 8:25 PM | Report abuse

This is what I love about state department diplomacy stories. When someone burps, where previously there had been a lack of burping, it is reported breathlessly as a "new breakthrough." It sounds as if world peace is about to be cast over us as a comforting shroud. And John Kerry! What a wizard, and he's just such a genius!

I recall during the agony of the Iranian hostage crisis, the press took the same tact every time a Mullah would cough. Could this be a sign? Was there indeed a breakthrough evident? Were they all coming home? Of course, none of these coughs or burps amounted to a hill of beans in the end. It took the threat of Ronald Reagan turning their country into an ash tray that changed behaviour.

I have the same view of the Syrians, a scurilous country that has funded terrorism and sent actors across the border for five years to KILL our girls and boys. It was only because the Israeli's had the cojones to knock out their Iranian funded, Korean built nuclear reactor that they are not threatening the region with nukes.

Screw 'em.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | June 1, 2009 8:31 PM | Report abuse

If John Kerry's office had a 'no comment' for the press, that means something big is happening. He normally doesn't miss a chance.
Further, a restaurant dinner with Assad stirs intrigue about possible change. On the other hand, what dinner with Kerry wouldn't be long?
Syria follows a time-honored, particularly Arab, diplomatic tradition of double-dealing, double entendre and double talking. But, just maybe this time it is Iran's turn to have agreements vanish intothin air.

Posted by: jmf3210 | June 1, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

What was Barry Soreto's muslim name?
He is said to have a Kenyan name, an Islamic Muslim name, his Indonesian citizen name Barry Soreto, and then this last one...I forget it now.

Posted by: dottydo | June 1, 2009 11:56 PM | Report abuse

Of course the US cannot ignore Syria as a player in the Middle East. But President Obama had no choice but to renew the sactions under the Syria Accountability Act, absent any consistent efforts by the Syrian regime to deal with the issues raised. The Syrians know full well, however, that the sanctions can be lifted, in part or totally, at a stroke of President Obama's pen. They know the minimum conditions to be met for such a development to take place. Syria is certainly entitled to regain the Golan Heights under an agreement with Israel, but not to harbor at will terrorists wishing to cause mayhem in Iraq, nor materially to support Hizbollah and Hamas. There is no need for an open and publicized breakoff with these two organizations, but for practical steps to be taken that can be verified one way or another. Also Syria should be asked discreetly to expell active Iraqi Baathi leaders to any country that is not a neighbor of Iraq.

Posted by: gilesrm | June 2, 2009 4:24 AM | Report abuse

Israelis alaways boast about their military "sucesses" but never care to look or consider the consequences of their actions.
they allege that they knocked a syrian nuclear reactor which no one including the US can confirm. It might do the israeli some good to look carefully into their defeat in 2006 in Lebanon and the one in the year 2000 before it. Israel good days are over and the future will certainly bring them more defeats that will eventually put an end to this zionist experiment in statehood. If they gambling on syria ditching Iran, then this is another zionist exercise in wishful thinking. The syrian-Iranian alliance is more than 29 years old, withstood the test of time and worked wonder in addressing the treats facing both countries. it proved to be viable and beneficial. Syria did not change its policies, it was america and europe who did after realizing that syria cannot be by-passed and that it is central to any equation in the region.Further, Syrian policies had proven to be the most credible in the ME, unlike Egypt whos Israel never miss an opportunity to humiliate its leaders and made Mubarak the laughing stock of the ME.

Ezzat Tamimi-London

Posted by: iztamimi | June 2, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

It shall be clear, that like US and Israel or Great Britain, Syria and Lebanon have unbreakable bond with Iran, which is a stalwart ally to Syria and Lebanon.

Posted by: fan2lee1 | June 3, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Ezzat Tamimi - London,

Israel is not the cause of our problems in the Arab world, and if you think that is you're clearly delusional.

Israel does nothing but fight for its very existence every day, while hostile countries and peoples surrounding her would jump at the opportunity to "wipe Israel off the map." From the sound of it, you would be happy to see that also.

Why don't you look at the real cause of the problem, and one of them is people exactly like you!

Posted by: bgreen44 | June 3, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

General Jones stated last week:

3 types of people

Those who watch the bus go by
Those who get on the bus
Those who drive the bus

America better at least get on the bus == his words not mine!

Get it?

Posted by: sasha2008 | June 3, 2009 9:21 PM | Report abuse

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