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Dr Musa A Keilani: Bridging a diplomatic gap
January 01, 2011
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US President Barack Obama has taken the right decision by temporarily appointing US ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two countries that are vital to American interests in the Middle East. The Republican criticism of Obama’s decision to make “recess appointments” of Robert Stephen Ford as ambassador to Syria stems from a blind rejection of any move that could be seen as a concession against Israeli interests.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an influential Republican who will chair the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee from January, was the first to criticise the move.

“Making underserved concessions to Syria tells the regime in Damascus that it can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda and not face any consequences from the US,” she said in a statement.

The “dangerous” agenda that she referred to includes mainly Syria’s efforts to regain the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war and “annexed” in 1981 in violation of international law.

We could see a consistency in the Syrian effort — always try to use any opportunity to turn things around and try to shake the status quo. Syria believes in keeping Israel on its toes, whether through moves in Lebanon or elsewhere. Syria’s alliance with Iran is an integral part of the Syrian strategy to deal with Israel’s refusal to engage in good faith negotiations over the return of the Golan Heights.

He is also addressing a similar issue with Turkey by appointing Francis “Frank” Ricciardone as ambassador to that country, which is a considered as a frontline state in efforts to contain Iran.

Turkey is accused of moving away from its traditionally close relations with Europe and is cementing its relationship with the Islamic world, including Iran. Therefore, questions are being raised as to how far Turkey could be expected to be a key party to “containing” Iran and Syria.

Syria does have interests in Lebanon, which it considers as its backyard. Its all-pervasive military presence for nearly 30 years had turned Lebanon into nothing more than a Syrian province which took orders from Damascus. It was indeed a travesty of relations between countries.

That came to an end with the departure of the last Syrian soldier from Lebanon forced by US-led international pressure following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Damascus no longer calls the shots in Lebanon, but its powerful ally Hizbollah is now a dominant force in Lebanese politics and affairs of the state.

The US recalled its ambassador in Damascus nearly six years ago for reasons that best known to the then administration of George W Bush.

The US and Israel accuse Syria of supporting “radical” Palestinian groups engaged in armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Is that a crime? After all, the Palestinians are exercising their internationally recognised right to liberate their land that was taken away from them through the use of military force. Damascus might indeed have its own interests in supporting the Palestinian groups, including a perpetual reminder to Israel of the conflict over the Golan Heights.

Again, that is part of the multipronged Syrian strategy. Many former officials who served US administrations have repeatedly affirmed that there is little chance of peace in the Middle East if Syria is kept out. Among them was James Baker III, who said in a report four years ago that the US had to engage Syria if it hoped for solutions to its crises not only in Iraq but also the broader Middle East.

The report by the Iraq Study in effect called for a sweeping overhaul of the Bush administration’s foreign and defence policies, including increased diplomatic contacts with Iran and Syria.

Regardless of whether Iran and Syria could be expected to live up to good faith diplomacy, the Baker report highlighted the inevitable role that Syria should play in the effort for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its fronts.

Bush opted to reject the Baker recommendation but that rejection highlighted the short and biased vision that his administration had towards any country or group that challenged Israel’s domination of the Middle East.

Syria could not be expected to serve Israeli interests and hence it is a pariah as far as US politicians are concerned. But they overlook that not engaging Syria works against US interests.

With his move to bridge the diplomatic void, Obama is trying to set things right. The moves comes at a time when tensions are running high ahead of the release of a UN panel’s indictments in the Hariri assassination, with Hizbollah rattling its sabers against any charges against any of its members. US diplomatic representation at the highest level is a must in Syria, and Obama’s move to appoint an ambassador — although for only one year — also sends a positive message to the Syrian leadership.

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