Damascus has become an unlikely hotspot for Western visitors in 2009, with President – and peacemaker-in-chief – Nicolas Sarkozy and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband taking in the sights and sounds of Damascus. Chairman of the Senate Committe on Foreign Relations John Kerry is jetting in next week, and the rumours are that he could soon be followed by a new US ambassador.
In today’s Guardian, Middle East editor Ian Black interviewed the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, with the title “Syrian leader extends olive branch to US”. So what did Assad say? …Well everything you would expect him to really!
On resuming diplomatic relations with the US:
“An ambassador is important,” Assad said. “Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them – Obama, Clinton and others – is positive.” But he added: “We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet.”
“Bush failed in everything,” says the president. “They [the Bush administ ration] worked hard to achieve regime change. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work because I am not an American puppet and have good relations with my people.”
“We have the impression that this administration will be different,” he says “and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results.” He hopes “in principle” to meet Obama, “but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to discuss peace.”
On the peace process:
“If you want comprehensive peace in the Middle East you can’t achieve it without Syria,” he says. “We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace you cannot advance without us.”
Of course what Assad did not disclose was what Syria was willing to give away to resume diplomatic relations with the US. Will the Syrian leader downgrade Damascus’ relations with Tehran? Will Hezbollah still receive arms that are transported via Syria? …Assad was tight-lipped.
I would be interested to hear what Mediashack’s opinions are on this one. The US will undoubtedly want things that Damascus doesn’t want to give. Catherine Philp of The Times was also in Damascus last week, and quoted a Syrian businessman in Damascus assaying: “From Tehran we get free oil, weapons, money, support. What has the West to offer that can beat that?” I can’t see the removal of economic sanctions being enough – although they are pretty severe. (When I was living in Damascus I found out that Syrian Air are prevented from buying new planes – they just keep tacking on old parts to old planes!) The bigger enticement for Assad would be the return of the Golan Heights, THE prize in Syrian politics. It is plausible that an Israeli government led by Netanyahu would find it easier to move on the Golan than Jerusalem or the West Bank – a sympathetic Whitehouse could certainly do no harm on this front.
For his part, Assad finished his interview by saying that:
“You can’t only deal with good people. If they can spoil things or put obstacles in your way you have to deal with them. And I don’t mean Syria and Iran. This is a principle. It applies anywhere in the world. Forget about labels and rhetoric.”
Hopefully, the Obama administration will be inclined to agree….
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