Saudi Arabia and Syria - AP
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Arab summit in Libya, October 2010. Photo by AP
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An extraordinary surprise awaited the senior American delegation that visited Damascus on February 18 last year. Into the meeting room in the Syrian foreign ministry stepped General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syrian Intelligence who does not usually appear at such meetings, even with representatives of friendly states like France and Britain.

The meeting was conducted by the deputy Syrian foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, who was hosting the American delegation that included Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department Maura Connelly, and National Security Council Director for Syria and Lebanon Meaghen McDermott.

Muqdad explained to the guests that Syrian president Bashar Assad had asked Mamlouk to join the meeting following the positive talk he had held the previous day with William Burns, the under secretary of state. According to a cable published in WikiLeaks, the aim of the meeting was to establish operational and intelligence cooperation with Syria vis-a-vis terrorist activity in Iraq, and to get Syria to deepen cooperation by closing the border to terrorists on both sides.

Mamlouk had something to propose to the guests. He told them about the large amount of intelligence that had accumulated with Syrian Intelligence about the activities of Al-Qaida activists, and about the radical Islamic movements; he even gave them details of the way he acted against them. "We don't kill them immediately," he said. "First we penetrate into these organizations and collect information, and when the opportunity presents itself, we act." True, Mamlouk did not adopt the Americans' position about Hamas and Hezbollah, but he agreed to extend intelligence cooperation regarding other organizations.

However, he and the deputy Syrian foreign minister had several demands in return. "We are demanding a political umbrella of improved relations between Syria and the United States," he said. "We are also demanding to be a leading power in the joint effort of the war against terror. And thirdly, in order to persuade the Syrian people to cooperate with the U.S., efforts must be advanced to lift the economic sanctions against Syria, ensure the supply of spare parts for planes and to sell a plane to President Assad."

Muqdad especially requested that the American administration inform Lufthansa Technik that it did not object to selling spare parts to Syria.

Benjamin did not remain apathetic. "Unlike President [George W.] Bush, [President Barack] Obama does not consider the war against terrorism to be part of the general fabric of foreign policy," he said. "The administration recognizes that cooperation in bilateral relations requires coordination in additional fields and the U.S. is expecting the Syrian people to realize the benefits of closer ties."

In this positive atmosphere, Muqdad added another request, according to which Syrian citizens should not be subject to such thorough scrutiny when they wish to enter the U.S. and that Syria be removed from the list of countries that support terrorism. He did not receive an immediate answer, but the American team suggested that a further meeting be held a month later, and it appears that matters are moving forward well between Washington and Damascus.

Direct intervention

They are progressing so well that the president last week decided to take advantage of the opportunity that Congress was on vacation and appoint Robert Ford as American ambassador to Damascus, in an exceptional move. Ford, who previously served as ambassador to Algeria and was the number two man in Iraq, will assume the post immediately after the New Year break. He will be the first American ambassador in the Syrian capital since 2005, when the then-ambassador was recalled in the wake of the murder of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon.

A White House spokesman explained that Ford's appointment underscored Obama's determination to adopt an approach of direct intervention, in order to further American interests by improving ties with the Syrian regime and the Syrian people. The American Senate has meanwhile delayed its discussion of Ford's appointment. In a letter sent to Obama by eight Senators last March, they explained this was because there should not even be a small step that would indicate the granting of legitimacy to the Syrian regime. However Obama decided that the discussion on the appointment should not be dragged out and used his presidential authority to bypass the Senate and further relations with Damascus.

It is true that the appointment requires ratification by the Senate, but the ambassador can serve in the new position at least until the end of the upcoming session, that is, until the beginning of next year. By the way, at the same time, the president appointed Frank Ricciardone, the former ambassador to Egypt, as ambassador to Turkey; the approval for his appointment was likewise held up by the Senate.

It seems that this is not merely an experimental gesture but rather an understanding on the part of the Americans that Syria is an essential partner in planning the future of Iraq, including the withdrawal from there by American troops. It is also the country that can ensure stability in Lebanon after the international court publishes its verdict about the Hariri murder.

The strengthening of ties between Syria and the U.S. can also be attributed to Saudi Arabia to a large extent, since it made it clear to Obama that in order to contain Iranian influence, it was necessary to draw closer to Damascus.

Israel would do well to prepare itself for a change in the relationship between Syria and the U.S., since the assessment now is that Damascus will ask the Americans to begin intensive mediation between it and Israel, in order to get Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Those who blocked the path of the special U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, on the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, will shortly find him bursting forth from Damascus.