Analysis: The significance of going to Damascus

Had the US wanted a serious thaw in relations, Mitchell or Clinton would be making the pilgrimage.

Bashar Assad 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
All those who think the US decision to dispatch two diplomats to Damascus for "preliminary" talks is a huge victory for Syria should look at how the administration of President Barack Obama played the "Durban 2" conference issue. Yes, the administration said, it would go to the preparatory talks for the UN's World Conference Against Racism, even if it meant - and it did - taking criticism from Jewish groups who argued that going to the preparatory meetings itself was tantamount to a sell-out. So the Obama administration went, heard what was being discussed, and then decided, "Nope, this isn't for us," and announced it would not attend the conference. This style is characteristic of the way the new US president seems to be doing business. Talk to nearly everyone, even those you don't like, hear them out and then make a decision. Thus while the decision to send Dan Shapiro from the National Security Council and Jeff Feltman from the State Department to Syria represents a shift in policy - they are the highest ranking administration officials to go to Syria since deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in 2005 - it doesn't mean the US is on the verge of a breakthrough with Syria. The Obama administration is very much in the policy review stage. Administration officials are going out into the field, listening, engaging in fact-finding and then coming back to Washington, where policy will be developed. Just as US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been gathering facts in Israel and the region, so now are Feltman and Shapiro going to gather facts in Syria. They will want to hear Syrian President Bashar Assad's take on a whole gamut of issues, not only those related to Israel. They'll want to hear about his designs on Lebanon, because even though he announced the normalization of ties with Beirut and the dispatching of an ambassador there, that hasn't yet taken place. It's also worth noting that Shapiro and Feltman are going to Damascus after first stopping to talk to the Lebanese government, which is sure to complain about continued Syrian meddling in their affairs. Feltman and Shapiro are also going to want to hear about the porous borders with Iraq. Remember, in October US special forces struck at al-Qaida fighters just inside Syria's border with Iraq, killing eight people. They'll want to hear about the nature and depth of Syria's relationship with Iran, and gage the possibility of Damascus moving out of Teheran's orbit. They'll want to hear about Syria's support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and the fact that Damascus plays host to a number of Palestinian terrorist organizations. They will, of course, also want to hear Assad's take on a diplomatic process with Israel. If the envoys don't like what they hear, then - just as happened with Durban 2 - the US might simply conclude that the conversation was going nowhere and say there was nothing more to talk about until Damascus changed its tune. But if they hear something pleasant to their ears, Feltman and Shapiro may hold a series of talks with the Syrians, or the US may want to ratchet up the level of the diplomats conducting the conversation. Indeed, its interesting that the decision to send a delegation started with sending Feltman and Shapiro, a relatively mid-level delegation. Had the US wanted to signal a serious thaw in relations, Mitchell - or even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - would be making the pilgrimage. Feltman and Shapiro represent not a thaw, but a de-icing. Whether relations freeze over again will depend very much on what they hear from Assad.