On a New Footing: U.S.-Syria Relations

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

March 19, 2009

Key Points

  • The recent high-level meeting between US and Syrian officials in Damascus effectively ends former US President George W. Bush’s policy of isolating Syria and underscores the plan of his successor, Barack Obama, to start a serious dialogue with Damascus on a range of political and security issues affecting US interests in the Middle East.
  • Realising the difficulty of forcing Syria to urgently make a choice between Iran or the West, the United States will for the time being focus in its talks on issues of possible convergence between the two countries, such as Iraq, Syrian-Israeli peace talks, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • It is too early to tell whether Washington’s opening to Damascus is purely tactical or of a strategic nature. Lacking a robust and fleshed out engagement strategy, Washington may not be ready yet to engage its tough minded and well prepared adversary.

On 7 March 2009, US President Barack Obama sent Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and Daniel B. Shapiro, the top Middle East officer at the National Security Council, to Damascus to meet with senior Syrian officials. For three and a half hours, the two US officials met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. Feltman and Shapiro are the highest ranking administration officials to visit Syria since deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in 2005, and their talks in Damascus are the most consequential to date.

While the decision to send Shapiro and Feltman represents a shift in policy (former US President George W. Bush’s policy towards Syria was largely that of isolation), it is premature to say that the United States is on the verge of a meaningful breakthrough with Syria.

Breaking the ice

The current administration’s approach towards Syria is characteristic of the way Obama seems to be doing business at home and abroad: talk to friends and foes alike and then decide. For the time being, the Obama administration is very much in the policy review stage, whether it is on Syria or other issues related to the Middle East. Administration officials and special envoys are travelling to the region, listening, engaging in fact-finding missions and returning to Washington, where policy is being formulated. Just as US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been gathering facts in Israel and the region, so now are Feltman and Shapiro in Syria.

On Syria, the administration is most likely to follow the following course of action. First, US officials will listen to their Syrian counterparts’ take on a whole range of issues (however knowing that the buck ends with Syrian president Bashar Assad): the porous borders with Iraq, the future of Lebanon, Syrian-Israeli peace talks, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, they will voice their concerns about Damascus’s political and military aiding of Hamas and Hizbullah, its suspected nuclear activities, and its destabilising role in Lebanon. Third, they will suggest ways they can cooperate on issues of mutual interest.

An uncertain outcome

On 3 March 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton interestingly said in Jerusalem that the administration had weighed the potential costs and benefits to stepping up its engagement with Syria. For now, nothing suggests that Washington has developed a robust and fleshed out engagement strategy. Indeed, Washington may not be ready yet to engage its tough-minded and well-prepared Arab adversary.

From a technical point of view, the framework and pace of US-Syrian talks is yet to be determined by US officials at the State Department and the National Security Council. More importantly, it is not clear whether Washington has made up its mind yet on the nature of its opening to Damascus. Is it purely tactical, seeking to extract concessions from Damascus on a number of issues, or strategic, looking to completely re-evaluate the US-Syrian relationship?

Finding common ground with Syria is harder than it might sound. Today, there are some serious potential standoffs between Syria and the UN over the Hariri tribunal and over nuclear inspections that could throw spanners into any imminent rapprochement with the United States. On 4 March 2009, the US stated that UN inspectors had found growing evidence of covert nuclear activity in Syria, and European allies said a lack of Syrian transparency demanded utmost scrutiny. On Lebanon, is it almost impossible to find a compromise between Washington’s stated plan of helping the Lebanese people restore their sovereignty and independence and Damascus’s fixation on controlling its smaller neighbour’s political fate. On Arab-Israeli peace, is Syria ready to cut its aid for Hizbullah and Hamas in exchange for a peace deal with Israel which would see the return of the Golan Heights to Syria?


The visit of Feltman and Shapiro to Syria represents not a thaw, but merely a de-icing of relations. Whether relations freeze over again will largely depend on what US officials start hearing from Assad. Washington appears to have made peace with the notion that it cannot force the decoupling of Syria from Tehran. Therefore, for now, it is most likely that it will focus its efforts on advancing Syrian-Israeli talks, in the hope that such an exercise will create tensions between Damascus and Tehran and lead to the gradual deterioration of Syrian-Iranian relations.