Page last updated at 14:58 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

US brings Syria 'in from the cold'

Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News diplomatic correspondent

The United States has been exploring the resumption of full diplomatic ties with Syria for some time. Syria remains a key player in the region and cannot be ignored.

Past US calls to isolate Damascus have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Washington's European allies have pushed ahead in terms of bolstering both diplomatic ties and trading links, with France very much in the lead.

Continuing this policy of semi-isolation now seems counter-productive.

Illusory goal

The US initially set quite a high price for engagement with Damascus, wanting to extricate Syria from its Iranian embrace.

Syrianair plane
Exports of goods containing more than 10% US-produced components banned (except food and medicines)
Obama administration working to increase exemptions for some IT, telecoms and civil aviation items
Syrian airlines blocked from operating in US
Ban on all US transactions with Commercial Bank of Syria
Specific individuals and organisations suspected of weapons dealing or associations with militant groups denied access to US financial system

The Obama administration wanted Syria to toughen controls on its border with Iraq in order to distance itself from Tehran, and to cease support for radical armed groups in the region such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

But this goal has proved illusory. Washington has had to re-calibrate its expectations.

Indeed this fact probably explains why the gradual rapprochement with Syria has at times appeared somewhat half-hearted at best.

Some economic sanctions against Syria are still in force and the US has, for example, blocked the selling of European Airbus airliners to Syria because they contain US technology.

Reports suggest that France, in contrast, is eager to sell Syria regional passenger aircraft and French firms are busily expanding into Syria, notably in the cement and construction sector.

So for the Americans the resumption of full ties with Syria has for some time been a question not so much of 'if', but 'when?'.

It clearly fits into President Barack Obama's wider game-plan in the region of engaging with countries with whom Washington has had strained relations.

Syria is clearly eager to develop its economy.

Better relations with the US could open up greater foreign investment and clearly it will be hoping, in due course, to get the sanctions regime lifted.

A gamble

That of course may prove problematic, not least on Capitol Hill, where the Syria-Iran relationship still rings strong alarm bells.

Diplomatically, Syria also wants its voice heard more strongly where it matters. It is still determined to recover the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

With Turkish mediation having come close but failing to promote direct Israel-Syria talks, the bumpy relationship between Israel and Turkey suggests that some other form of mediation may be required and that might possibly include a US role.

For Washington, restoring full diplomatic relations is something of a gamble.

What will Syria give in return? The US clearly wants a stronger voice in Damascus.

It is worried about stability in Iraq and it is concerned about tensions between Israel and Syria, with the fear that renewed fighting could break out in Lebanon.

A resumption of full ties could also signal a growing US interest in the Israel-Syria track of the peace process; a deal that may prove elusive, but one that now may seem more attractive in Washington, given the poor state of Israel-Palestinian ties.

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