The Cable

Syria on the Potomac

It’s not quite the same thing as returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. But the Obama administration is sending a delegation to Syrian National Day celebrations to be held tonight at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It’s the first time the U.S. government has sent officials to grace the event in six years. The top U.S. ...

It’s not quite the same thing as returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. But the Obama administration is sending a delegation to Syrian National Day celebrations to be held tonight at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

It’s the first time the U.S. government has sent officials to grace the event in six years. The top U.S. diplomat attending tonight’s festivities is Obama’s recently nominated assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Amb. Jeffrey Feltman, along with other less senior officials. 

The Lebanese embassy received an invitation to the event as well, if only yesterday, a Washington Middle East hand heard.

Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, the NSC senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, met with Syrian foreign ministry officials in Damascus last month.

But the Obama administration appears to be proceeding cautiously and without great haste towards greater engagement with Damascus.

"They are going extremely slowly — and with good reason," said David Schenker, a former Pentagon Syria and Lebanon analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Schenker said the Obama administration made a few under-the-radar gestures toward Syria early in the term — allowing the sale of spare parts of 747s that had previously been banned under the Syria Accountability Act, and permitting money transfers to a Syrian children’s cancer charity affiliated with the wife of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Among signs of reciprocity the United States has observed from Syria to date: better diplomatic access for U.S. embassy staff and visitors, the reopening of the American Language Center, initial help toward acquiring property to build a new embassy, and a general change of tone about the U.S.

One reason for the go-slow approach may be to avoid doing anything that might complicate the upcoming Lebanese elections, which are being held on June 7. 

The Syrian and Lebanese governments have recently opened embassies in each others’ countries. But relations are still exceedingly delicate, and Syrian influence in Lebanese politics remains a major concern.

"Everyone in Lebanon, or rooting for one or another Lebanese team from the sidelines, has called for there to be ‘no foreign interference in the elections,’" said Benjamin Ryan of the Aspen Institute U.S.-Lebanon Dialogue. "The U.S. concerns vis a vis Syria and Iran going in to the elections are the potential for physical intimidation, violence, or even assassinations – all tactics that have been employed against anti-Syrian or pro-Western groups in the past. Whether because of the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement or the slow detente between the U.S. and Iran, it looks now like things will go relatively smoothly."

For now, tonight’s gesture continues the Obama administration’s efforts to show a greater willingness to engage with Damascus, if cautiously and with its eyes open.

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