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US-Syria relations still mired in mistrust

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Visiting US politician John Kerry talks to Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa
Syria has hosted a number of high-level US visitors since Mr Obama's victory

Under the Bush administration the relationship between the US and Syria was dire. Washington described Damascus as a pariah, imposed economic sanctions on the country and recalled its ambassador. Now President Barack Obama wants to change this.

But in his spacious Beirut office decorated by the portraits of the Syrian president, the pro-Syrian politician Lebanese Weam Wahab told me why it would be so hard for the United States and Syria to find a common language.

The main problem, he said, is that Damascus is never in a hurry, while Washington always is.

"The Iranians could take 20 years to weave a carpet," he told me.

"And the Syrians would say to them: Don't rush, we have plenty of time. But the Americans want to eat their hamburger in three minutes and move on."

This fundamental difference to the approach in the process of policy making is the reason why Mr Wahab is sceptical about President Obama's new attempt to engage with the Middle East.

But he does admit that to him and his allies in Damascus, Mr Obama's new efforts bring a certain sense of vindication.

"George Bush's plan failed, Syria won and Syrians now feel that their policies were correct all along," he says.

Realistic plan

Syria has cautiously welcomed President Obama's efforts.

But mistrust still runs deep on both sides, differences are vast and Washington's agenda in Syria is still the same.

Obama's silence on Gaza was noted in the region, and I don't think that the US administration has taken a real decision in the way they view the Middle East
Karim Makdisi
The US wants Damascus to stop its support for the two anti-Israeli militant groups - Hamas and Hezbollah, play a more constructive role with its neighbour Lebanon and distance itself from Iran.

Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, believes that the plan is realistic.

"I think beneath the bravado, Syria is in fact uncomfortable with Iran and that both President [Bashar] al-Assad and his people would prefer to look to the West," he says.

Mr Wahab laughs at this assumption.

"Iran is the only country that stood with Syria through the hard times. It's an illusion to think that you can distance Syria from Iran," he says.

He also questions the value of what Washington could offer Syria in return: relief of economic sanctions and the end of its isolation from the West.

Mr Wahab's personal experience tells him that Syria can easily carry on without either.

"Two years ago George Bush decided to ban me from entering America and to freeze my assets in the States. I laughed: I have nothing to lose in America. And the people of this region feel the same - we have nothing to lose," he says.

Fickle policy

The US could win over Syria with the prospect of returning the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967.

This standoff has a bigger chance of being resolved than any other in the Middle East - and many in Washington believe that Israeli-Syrian peace could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But political scientist Karim Makdisi believes America's track record in the region will create problems for President Obama.

"People in the region understand that the US policy has been very fickle," he says.

Mr Makdisi says it is not in Syria's interest to give up Hezbollah or Iran for the sake of the Golan Heights.

"If Syrians then run into problems and Israelis and suddenly Hezbollah and Iran are no longer on their side, what do you do as Syria?" Mr Makdisi asks.

And feeding into this scepticism is the fact that the Obama administration has already made it clear that US loyalty in the Middle East still lies above all with Israel.

Mr Makdisi says that became especially evident during Israel's war in Gaza.

"Obama's silence on Gaza was noted in the region, and I don't think that the US administration has taken a real decision in the way they view the Middle East," he says.

"We are talking about the shift in tactics, in the way of dealing with the Syrians and the Iranians, but fundamentally things have not changed," he says.

Since President Obama's election things in the Middle East have become less tense, perhaps a bit more friendly and everyone here welcomes America's new attitude.

But when it comes to real changes no-one in the Middle East is holding their breath.

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