15 MARCH 2009


American, British and French politicians make noises elsewhere then tiptoe to Syria. To be more precise, they go to Beirut to make their press statements and negotiate political deals in Damascus.

That is the general impression, at least in the Middle East region as a regular stream of visitors started appearing in the Lebanese capital to highlight the sovereignty, integrity and freedom of that country, then proceed to its neighbour for prolonged meetings with a minimum of public information.

Less than a year ago, if anyone claimed that U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman visited Damascus and was photographed under the official portrait of President Bashar Assad, no one would have believed it. After all, "Jeff," as he is known to his Lebanese political "allies," was the cheerleader of the openly anti-Syrian "14 March" movement, and while he represented his country there -- almost a convener of what became known as the "Welsh Club," in reference to U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Middle East, David Welsh -- fiercely confronting the local opposition.

As times change, people adjust. Ambassador Welsh, whose rare smile was a blessing to Arab "moderates," is now reportedly a special adviser to the government -- or business groups -- in Libya. Ambassador Feltman, now acting in Welsh's former footsteps, first had a long exploratory meeting with the Syrian Ambassador to Washington, then went for meetings with its Foreign Minister. More interesting was that partner in the trip, Daniel Shaprio, now a White House staffer who reportedly was influential in drawing a U.S. Congressional resolution on the boycott of Syria. Both had been preceded by congressional visits, most notably by Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was already preceded by Majority Speaker Ms. Nancy Pelosi.

Obviously approached by jolted Lebanese politicians who had bet their omelettes on Dick Cheney eggs, some rhetorical bravado was in order. Thus, Senator Kerry stopped at the residence of Hariri family to tell the young heir, Saad -- and local reporters -- how attached we all are to the principles of freedom and justice inscribed in the Constitution. In Damascus, however, it was a different story; less posturing and more substantive.

After seven years of international isolation, the Syrian leadership was shrewdly handling overtures of interest. Even before President George W. Bush left the White House, his "buddy" in Paris, new French President Sarkozy, opened a window of opportunity, allowing for a Turkish mediation between Israel and Syria.

Except for the solid and realistic Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, who thought that exaggerated rhetoric was counterproductive, most of the "majority" politicians had been persuaded that they had overwhelming world support to topple their neighbouring regime. Little did they know that:

  1. Other Arab regimes -- though unhappy with the young Assad -- will be the first to block any "revolutionary" action for fear that it will eventually extend to them; and
  2. Their own international backers were not really keen on the fall of Assad regime but on "behavioral change."

An eventual Doha-Paris joint effort managed to inject some life in the Syrian revival, shrewdly handled by the young President in Damascus and his British-educated wife, the popular Asma. Much of the substantive backchannel bridge-building was accomplished persistently and creatively by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, whose impressive profile includes a very successful role as Ambassador in Washington.

There were, of course, other less public channels. For example, those attending a recent conference in Doha on "Islam and the West" were struck by the "mutual admiration society" of a duo: 1) Martyn Indyck, former head of AIPAC, former U.S. (Clinton) Ambassador to Israel, currently presented to be an advisor on the Middle East to President Obama, and director of the Saban Institute -- which co-sponsored the event, and 2) Butheina Shaaban, a Special Advisor to Syria President Bashar Assad, former senior Foreign Minister official and interpreter for former President Hafez Assad in confidential meetings, like a decisive one with President Clinton in Geneva. Ms. Shaaban, who hails from the same region as her President, is one of the most influential foreign policy figures in the current Syrian regime.

Clearly there is no personal or social agenda. It is a backchannel political connection established over the last fifteen years since "Sheperdtown," "Camp David," Geneva and other negotiations on a peace process. Mr. Indyck offers a witness confirmation of Ms. Shaaban's quest for a just agreement. Ms. Shaaban facilitates Mr. Indyck's entry into usually difficult Arab militant arenas, a feather in his cap in both Jerusalem and Washington. Dr. Madeleine Albright is an enthusiastic patron of that joint channel. So is Mr. Haim Saban, in the conviction that it will certainly be very good for Israel. Similarly, the Syrian President fully supports that contact in the confidence that it will be in Syria's interest. Perhaps both are right -- or wrong -- we'll eventually find out.

Tiptoeing to Damascus seems to be yielding positive results, perhaps leading to a less troubled Arab region. A personal meeting between Saudi Arabia's King Abdallah and Syria's President Assad, who were barely on speaking terms, took place following an exchange of messages carried by very trusted personal envoys. A mini-summit with Egypt could jointly take place, assisted by two or three other helpful Arab leaders before the official Arab League-sponsored summit in Doha by end March.

Wisely, President Obama's administration is carefully and discreetly supportive. Several serious issues at stake include: the Arab-Israeli Peace Process; the state of Palestinian unity and the possible formation of a conciliatory comprehensive new government; dealing with varied forces in Iraq now that the U.S. will be gradually withdrawing; relations with Iran; exchange of intelligence on militant extremists perceived jointly as a threat; as well as bilateral relations and dealing with local forces acting as semi-proxies to one side or another.

If nothing else, exploring points of mutual interest will always be better, safer and more useful than dueling through proxies.