It’s been a big week for American-Syrian relations, with President Obama taking incremental but necessary steps towards renewing ties between the two countries: naming Robert S. Ford as ambassador on Tuesday, allowing high-level meetings between the State Department’s William Burns and Daniel Benjamin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and today word from Politico’s Laura Rozen that the State Department has lifted travel warnings against Syria.
To be fair, this all should have happened several years ago. And as Syria expert Joshua Landis points out, these overtures reflect the broader point that attempts to isolate Syria have failed spectacularly:
American isolation of Syria was a big waste of time and effort. It hurt Iraq. It hurt America. And it hurt Syria. Everyone lost…Isolation and sanctions on Syria were always bad policies. They gained America nothing. As I wrote yesterday, even Jeffery Feltman, the State Department’s leading policy guy on Syria, admitted that the US had isolated itself by its policies, rather than isolating Syria. The US is engaging, he averred, because sanctions and isolation had failed. Washington has no choice but to get back into the diplomacy game and try carrots rather than sticks.
Landis is right in pointing out elsewhere in his analysis that normalization with Syria will not split it from Iran or bring peace to Israel. For this to happen the US must follow up with concrete action both to integrate Syria into a regional security arrangement and show it is willing to push Israel to get to the negotiating table. Likewise, Israel and Syria must tone down their rhetoric and make the hard choices necessary for peace, such as Syrian concessions on supplying weapons to Hezbollah and Israeli concessions on the Golan Heights.
All in all this week’s decisions will not magically repair the Middle East. But they are still a step in the right direction.