In the ebb and flow of Middle East diplomacy, the two interrelated issues of an Israeli-Syrian peace settlement and Washington’s bilateral relationship with Damascus have gone up and down on Washington’s scale of importance. The election of Barack Obama raised expectations that the United States would give the two issues the priority they had not received during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. Candidate Obama promised to assign a high priority to the resuscitation of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and separately to “engage” with Iran and Syria (as recommended by the Iraq Study Group in 2006).
In May 2009, shortly after assuming office, President Obama sent the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, and the senior director for the Middle East in the National Security Council, Daniel Shapiro, to Damascus to open a dialogue with Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Several members of Congress also travelled to Syria early in Obama’s first year, including the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, John Kerry, and the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Howard Berman. In addition, when the president appointed George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell named as his deputy Fred Hof, a respected expert on Syria and the Israeli-Syrian dispute. Last summer, both Mitchell and Hof visited Damascus and began their give and take with Syria.
And yet, after this apparent auspicious beginning, neither the bilateral relationship between the United States and Syria, nor the effort to revive the Israeli-Syrian negotiation has gained much traction. Damascus must be chagrined by the fact that when the Arab-Israeli peace process is discussed now, it is practically equated with the Israeli-Palestinian track. This paper analyzes the difficulties confronting Washington’s and Jerusalem’s respective Syria policies and offers an approach for dealing with Syria. Many of the recommendations stem from lessons resulting from the past rounds of negotiations, so it is important to understand what occurred.