Syria’s five-year diplomatic isolation by the West de facto ended Wednesday as Washington’s top career diplomat met with President Bashar Assad in Damascus, a day after President Obama nominated the first U.S. ambassador to the Arab state since 2005.
At the same time, the State Department removed an official warning discouraging Americans from traveling to Syria, which was previously deemed unsafe.
The U.S. moves followed a series of recent visits to Syria by senior European officials, who have been urging the Obama administration to engage fully with Damascus. But it was the prospect of weakening Syria’s close relationship with Iran that motivated Washington to extend a hand, diplomats and analysts said.
“There are challenges on the road, but my meeting with President Assad leaves me hopeful that we can make progress together in the interest of both our countries,” said William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in more than five years.
Mr. Burns described his Wednesday discussions with Mr. Assad as “quite productive and extensive,” covering “areas on which we disagree, but also we found areas of common ground on which we can build.”
“This is a clear sign after five years without an ambassador in Damascus of America’s readiness to improve relations and to cooperate to pursue a just and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis,” he said.
In a calculated move, the State Department decided not to extend a “travel warning” to U.S. citizens about “ongoing safety and security concerns in Syria,” which expired Friday, officials said. Such advisories are issued regularly for countries around the world, and are renewed when they expire, unless the situation on the ground improves. The officials declined to say whether that was the case in Syria.
The George W. Bush administration withdrew the previous U.S. ambassador after the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria was implicated. Since then, the U.S. Embassy has been headed by a charge d’affaires.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama nominated Robert Ford, a career diplomat and current deputy ambassador to Baghdad, as the new ambassador to Damascus.
“If confirmed by the Senate, Ford will be an outstanding chief of mission of the United States,” said Edward P. Djerejian, a former career ambassador to Syria under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “His nomination by President Obama demonstrates the willingness of the United States to engage the Syrians on the broad range of issues in our bilateral relationship.”
However, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, harshly criticized the administration’s “reckless engagement” with Syria.
“With this nomination, our foreign policy again risks sending the message that it is better to be an intractable enemy than a cooperative, loyal U.S. ally,” she said. “Despite the administration’s outreach, Syria continues to sponsor violent extremist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty, and to pursue unconventional weapons and missile capabilities.”
Although the Obama administration still has concerns about Damascus’ support for Islamic extremism, it recognizes the positive role Syria could play in the region, current and former U.S. officials said. They also pointed out that Syria remains on the State Department’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
“A fully functioning embassy on the ground, and a sustained, muscular and performance-oriented dialogue serve our national security interests,” said Mr. Djerejian, who is founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Olivier Guitta, adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said one of the reasons behind Washington’s overture is that “Syria is the weakest link to getting at Iran, and if a wedge could be driven between the two countries, then it would be much easier to pressure Tehran.”
Mr. Obama has extended repeated offers of engagement to Iran, all of which have been rebuffed. Tehran also has rejected Western attempts to address concerns about its nuclear program, which the West fears is intended for military purposes.
Concerns also remain about Syria’s nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration said in April 2008 that a nuclear facility there built with North Korean help was nearly complete when Israel bombed it in September 2007.
“The Iran-Syria relationship won’t change overnight, but the more we can engage Syria constructively, the more we can diminish the importance of that relationship and put some distance between the two,” Mr. Djerejian said.
Mr. Guitta said ties between Syria and Iran are too “deep” for the administration’s outreach to have a major impact.
“Damascus is not ready to give up its alliance with Tehran,” he said. “The reason why is that Iran is bankrolling Syria’s economy, and Assad will have to find a way to replace Tehran’s funding at some point. Signs of a real drift between Damascus and Tehran have not therefore emerged. This was a doomed policy from the start.”