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US appoints first ambassador to Syria for five years

US President Barack Obama has appointed an ambassador to Syria for the first time since George W. Bush cut diplomatic ties in 2005. But the new envoy only has one year in the job to turn relations round.

Syrian and US flags

President Bush put Syria in his infamous "Axis of Evil"

President Barack Obama has taken the rare step of temporarily appointing a US ambassador to Syria, restoring a top US envoy to Damascus after an absence of nearly six years.

Syria is seen as vital to US interests, and the move is seen as a logical measure in Obama's plan to engage with countries his predecessor George W. Bush described as the 'Axis of Evil,' particularly Iran and Syria.

The new ambassador is Robert Stephen Ford, a career diplomat with experience in handling tricky countries, having previously been US ambassador to Algeria and held senior posts in the US embassy in Baghdad. He is also considered one of the strongest Arabic speakers among US diplomats.

But Ford is a "recess appointment," meaning the decision was taken by Obama while Congress is in recess, thus bypassing the need for Senate approval.

This does mean that Ford's tenure can only last as long as the current Congress legislative period, or until December 2011.

The move has been criticized by the Republican party, since they have been blocking Ford's nomination in the Senate. His nomination appears to have foundered on Republican concerns that Damascus may have sought to transfer Scud missiles to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Syrian President Bashar Assad

The Syrian president is much better disposed to President Obama than Bush

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an influential Republican who will chair the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee from January, said in a statement, "Making undeserved 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."

Andre Bank, research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, says Obama had been willing to make concessions to Republicans over Ford's appointment, but was still left frustrated. "The compromise had been that Ford would be nominated as the new ambassador, but at the same time the sanctions against Syria would be extended," he says. "But there were still no advances in the American system.

Back to normal?

There has been no official reaction from Syria, though an unnamed Syrian diplomatic source - quoted by the Egyptian English-language news website Ahram Online - said the government welcomed the appointment. "Such a move will reinforce Washington's credibility in the region and open the door for serious cooperation between the two countries on regional and local issues," he said.

But Bank is skeptical that Ford will be able to do much to affect peace in the Middle East, despite recent US efforts. "Obama bet so much on the diplomacy card, trying to put some pressure on the Israelis," he said. "But the Israelis laid them open, and now American policy has to a large extent failed."

Speaking from Damascus, journalist George Baghdadi told Deutsche Welle that the announcement was unlikely to get a big official response. "When there was a previous appointment, I remember that a statement by the foreign ministry said, 'This is an internal issue, and it is up to the Americans to send an ambassador or not.' "

But there is likely to be at least some cautious satisfaction in Damascus that the US is willing to engage with Syria again. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is certainly much better disposed to Obama than to Bush. "Assad thinks that Obama is honest, that he would like to engage Syria, he would like to negotiate peace," says Baghdadi. "If you mention Bush, people will say he was behind all the catastrophes in the Middle East."

Bank agrees that the appointment will do nothing but good for US-Syrian relations. "They're saying, 'We want to integrate you in the region and have an official channel of communications again,' " he said. "But in the context of the wider peace diplomacy in the Middle East it is an attempt to save a failed policy by a new approach, and I'm very skeptical that that will work."

Baghdadi points out that Obama's rapprochement with Syria is actually just a normalization of relations after the instability of the Bush years. "Relations with the Americans weren't that strained before Bush took over," he says. "Bush was the exception. You remember that Syria took part in the international response when Iraq occupied Kuwait in the early 1990s."

Significant problems

But Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at the Chatham House research institute, says there are a number of clouds still hanging over US-Syrian relations, not least the ongoing UN Hariri tribunal.

Rafic Hariri's grave

The death of Hariri still hangs over the Middle East peace process

The tribunal, officially called the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), has been set up to find out who was responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. An initial United Nation investigation implicated senior Syrian security officers in an attack apparently carried out by the terrorist organization Hezbollah.

"It's a temporary measure in the sense that the US is saying, 'Let's wait and see if they behave themselves.' " says Mekelberg. "They're saying, 'Let's see what happens with the Hariri affair, with the Lebanon, and in relations with Hezbollah. It's an important move, but they will be able to reassess it in a year's time. If there is room for negotiations, then I am sure it will become more permanent."

There are other motivations for the US, particularly relating to the apparently endless simmering dispute with Iran. If relations can be improved with Syria, then Iran will become more isolated. "If you can isolate Iran from Syria it will make it more difficult for Hezbollah to arm." says Mekelberg.

But Baghdadi says Syria is not going to let itself be pulled too far west. "Before we can expect anything, we have to know what the Syrians would get. Fine, there is an ambassador, and then what?" he asks. "If Syria does not benefit from this, then I don't imagine they will depart from the Iranians or anyone else. I don't think there is any trust between Syria and the US."

Devil not in the details

Another element in this slight thaw of relations is the eternal dispute between Israel and Syria, in which the US has often been the broker. Since Turkey's relations with Israel have soured badly in the past year, because of the Gaza flotilla incident, the US may be able to take up that mediating position again.

This is an area in which Ford could make some inroads during his year-long tenure. Baghdadi believes that all that has been lacking in this dispute is political will.

"When Bush was there, there was no honest broker at all," he says. "If there is a stronger, more assertive move by the US it is good. Most of the issues between Syria and Israel have been discussed and negotiated. It's not the details that were the problem, but the leadership. If the Obama administration makes a more assertive move, it can lead to something."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge

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