New ambassador could be on the road to Damascus

New ambassador could be on the road to Damascus

It’s been half a year since the Obama administration pledged to send an ambassador to Damascus after four years’ absence and now we are seeing movement. The State Department has reportedly sent its recommendation to the White House for approval and final deliberations are said to be underway.

The two names leading the rumor mill in Washington as of now are Jacob Walles, the immediate past consul general in Jerusalem, and Nabil Khury, a veteran Foreign Service officer of Lebanese descent. State Department sources said that Daniel Rubinstein, the new Jerusalem consul general and rumored candidate, was not in contention because he was just settling into his new job.

Sources close to the discussions also say that the job was offered and declined at some point by both Fred Hof, a Syria expert and deputy to Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell, and Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 but is not currently in government.

At the start of the Obama administration, there was some talk and expectation that things with Syria could move relatively quickly, not necessarily toward a huge breakthrough but at least toward a warming of the relationship in some sense. But public examples of such a warming are hard to find and the lack of progress has had an effect of its own.

"The decision was expected a while ago, so even though it’s significant, part of its significance has been eroded simply by the virtue of how much time has elapsed," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "There’s been frustration, disappointment, and some misunderstanding on both sides."

Underlying the dynamic is the disparity between the two sides over what the reinstatement of a U.S. ambassador means. The Syrians view it as a return to normalcy while the U.S. side sees it more as of a reward.

"Whatever bang one would expect to get from the naming of an ambassador has been diluted because the Syrians feel like they’ve been unfairly punished and have had to wait too long," Miller said.

There were both bureaucratic and political reasons for the delay, according to insiders. On the bureaucratic side, the Obama administration had to decide who the right person was to send, who could get through the confirmation process smoothly, and what message would the selection of that person send to the Syrians.

On the political side, the question was how to calibrate the speed at which the U.S. moves to normalize relations with Syria and how that decision factors into other regional issues that are moving on parallel tracks.

Also, the U.S. still feels Syria is engaged in activities seen as counter to U.S. interests in the region. These include Syrian protection of former members of the Saddam Hussein regime, possible Syrian complicity in attacks in Baghdad, and lingering Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics.

But many Middle East watchers hold out hope that progress with Syria could have ripple effects throughout the region, potentially finally convincing Syria to move away from its alliance with Iran and changing the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"For the Obama administration, which has so far not done well in the region despite consistent and concerted outreach to the Arab world, this [series of ripple effects] would be a very positive development," one Middle East hand said. "It might put pressure on the Palestinians to be more receptive to talks with the Israelis, while potentially depriving Hamas of its sanctuary in Damascus."

U.S. officials are said to have different takes on Syria. More senior officials, such as Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, are seen as skeptics, feeling that Syria has to prove itself and demonstrate more constructive behavior before getting rapprochement with the U.S.

The office of Vice President Joseph Biden is also said to be cautious about advancing relations with Syria, but that could be out of concern for maintaining delicate but good relations with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. Biden is the White House’s point man on dealing with Maliki’s government, which accuses Syria of fomenting chaos in Iraq.

One level down the State Department hierarchy, officials for whom Syria is a larger and more specific part of their portfolio want to see diplomacy with Damascus move more quickly. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is one who is said to want more movement, but the Syrians might not view him that way based on his past reputation as a Syria critic during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, sources said.

State Department advocates for moving forward are allied with some in the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, who are in favor of more interaction with the Syrians, although the military is by no means monolithic on this issue.

President Obama is also said to favor movement, but the top White House leadership is simply unable to devote a lot of attention to Syria right now. Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell has been also gotten involved, traveling to Damascus recently. But he too is unable to devote the bulk of his time to the issue.

"It’s not among the 10 most important issues for the administration, so it’s one where the power of inertia is more significant than whatever forward movement advocates are pushing," another Middle East expert said.

Attempts to contact Walles and Khury were unsuccessful. A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment.