|To be able to say that there is a shift in US policy regarding Syria, one has first to assume that there was indeed a coherent policy on how to deal with Damascus in the first place. Yet for the most part Washington’s policy regarding regimes that the Bush administration disagreed with has been to: A) refuse to talk to them, and B) to berate them at every chance. Washington’s stance regarding Damascus was a typical example of such policy. Could that policy be changing so late in the game? Possibly. But then again, more likely not.|
In his final State of the Union address President George W. Bush was quite forthright in his accusations aimed at Iran and its leaders. Bush issued a stern warning to the leadership in Tehran, warning them that the United States would not stand idly by, in view of what he deemed was, Tehran’s aggressive policy in the region.
The president devoted a sizeable portion of his address to the Middle East, particularly focusing on the situation in Iraq and on what he likes to call “the war on terror.” Bush stressed the importance of “confronting enemies abroad and advancing liberty in troubled regions of the world.” He spoke of witnessing “stirring moments in the history of liberty.” He spoke of images of liberty that have “inspired us,” such as Iraqis voting in free elections for the first time. He also spoke of “images that sobered us.” He referred to “[passenger] trains in London and Madrid ripped apart by bombs,” a bride in a blood-stained dress at a wedding party in the Jordanian capital, and people carrying coffins in Lebanon.
There was, in effect, nothing new to what should have been a landmark speech, his last, after two terms in the White House and two wars in the Middle East. This speech will, after all, be the one that historians will remember most and will in years to come be compared it to those of other presidents.
On second thought, however, there was indeed an important new element to the president’s speech; the novelty was not so much in what was said, but more in what was left out of the presidential address. If Bush continued to view Tehran as representing a clear and present danger to the security of the United States, repeating that all options remained on the table when it came to Iran, the president was conspicuously silent when it came to Syria.
In retrospect, this silence seems rather odd when compared to previous speeches summarizing the situation in the Middle East. Until now, members of the Bush administration had no qualms about accusing Damascus of interfering in the affairs of its neighbor to the west, as well as those of its neighbor to the east.
Could it be that Washington has decided to engage Damascus in dialogue rather than continue its previous policy of shunning those that it disagrees with? Besides the Iraqi imbroglio, which Washington says Damascus has been involved in, facilitating the transit of weapons and fighters through its territory. The Bush administration has also clashed with Damascus over the political tug of war in Lebanon, more recently over the question of the Lebanese presidency.
Is this sudden silence concerning Syria an indication that Washington and Damascus are talking to one another? If so, both sides have been very discrete and successful in maintaining a complete media blackout, a near impossibility in a city such as Washington.
Hiam Nawas, a political analyst in Washington, follows Syrian affairs with a keen interest. She believes that if we are to resolve the Lebanon issue, “engaging Syria is crucial.”
True words. But other than the president’s silence there is no other indication of a thawing of relations between Syria and the United States. Rather, all indications seem to hint at Damascus having “given up” on attempting to deal with the Bush administration, instead focusing on how to do business with the next administration, now less than a year away.
Indeed, if Washington has lacked a coherent policy on how to deal with Syria, on the other hand the policy applied by Damascus when dealing with an intransigent Washington has been quite simple: Wait until a new administration moves into the White House.
Not pressured by the same four-year electoral cycle under which US presidents operate, Syria’s rulers — as well as a number of other leaders around the world — have learned to retrench and sit out the remaining time left to an administration they disagree with. This has long been the strategy practiced by President Hafez al-Assad and it continues to be the method of choice of his son and successor, Bashar.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.