In the week in which Bahrain is burning and Saudi Arabia trembling (See HOT POINTS Wednesday, February 16: Saudis ready to aid Bahraini ruler); the Hashemite King of Jordan has his back to the wall against a Bedouin revolt; raucous rallies in Yemen and Libya; and Egypt nowhere near recovery – that week finds US President Barack Obama busy shoring up the least pro-US and most repressive Arab ruler in the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar Assad against his own opposition, which is building up to more "Days of Anger."
Almost ready for takeoff is the next effort to improve bilateral relations between Washington and Damascus. It was kicked off, with Obama's blessing, by a low-profile dialogue conducted by former President Jimmy Carter.
Carter was in Damascus twice during 2010 and invited a handful of politicians, businessmen, academics, and media figures to visit the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA for Track II, the next level of dialogue scheduled to start towards the second quarter of 2011.
"Contrary to what was reported in the Arab media, the [coming] trip wasn't planned to appease the US and seek their protection amid turmoil in the region," US and Syrian sources said this week. "In fact, the talks were planned long before the popular revolts in the Arab world."
The sources added that the two countries had a packed agenda of topics of mutual concern "that ranged from bilateral relations and US sanctions on Syria, to the peace process, Iraq, WMDs, and joint efforts on counter-terrorism."
Top Obama advisers in US-Syrian Track II
Carter has asked his former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to chair the Track II talks at the Carter Center alongside former Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran, who served as Syria's ambassador to London 25 years ago.
Omran will be supported by eight prominent Syrian figures, the Chairman of the Damascus Securities Exchange Rateb Shallah, Chairman of the Syrian Red Crescent Abdul Rahman Attar, ex-Ministers of Higher Education, Telecom and Transport – Hani Mourtada, Bashir Munajjed, and Makram Obeid – Director of Syrian State TV Reem Haddad, technology and media entrepreneur Abdulsalam Haykal, and Sami Moubayed, university professor and chief-editor of Forward.
Their program includes meetings with prominent US figures including Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Israel, Tom Dine of the Search for Common Ground, along with journalists like David Ignatius and Helen Cobban.
When sessions move to Washington, D.C., the Syrians will meet John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Obama's virtual secretary of state for informal missions or assignments in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not wish to be involved.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources, the four advisers who helped shape President Obama's steps in the Egyptian upheaval are ardent enthusiasts of the Syrian track. They are Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough; Benjamin J. Rhodes, who wrote the seminal address to the Islamic world the President delivered from Cairo in June 2009; the human rights advocate Samantha Power and US peace envoy George Mitchell's Syrian adviser Fred Hoff.
Opponents: Assad conned the US countless times
The Obama administration's objectives in Track II have meanwhile become entangled in the disturbances sweeping the Arab world since January. No one can deny that Bashar Assad is an autocrat, of the kind Obama condemned this week as needing to abandon force and adapt to a changing world.
At the same time, the Americans promoting dialogue with Syria have found signs that he is willing to gradually make his regime more open and give up some of his repressive measures.
This is the scenario they are aiming for: Assad must come to terms with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood – as agreed between the two parties in early 2008 – and bring the group into government in Damascus.
With Sunni Muslim factions installed in the governments of Syria and Egypt, Washington believes it will have the makings of a Sunni-Islamic bloc of Arab nations to offset the Shiite Muslim alliance headed by Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah.
If the Syrian ruler opts for this change of orientation, his bonds with Tehran will gradually fade as the new direction unfolds and gathers momentum – or so the US proponents of the opening to Syria believe.
They are fully conscious of the harsh criticism and counter-arguments coming from many influential circles in Washington, especially conservatives and pro-Israel elements. These opponents argue that the bid to talk Syria's president into mending his ways is unrealistic; Assad has fooled many a former administration diplomat into believing they were getting close to him and he was ready to ease his ties with Tehran – only to snap their efforts back in their faces. He would have the last laugh again.
Proponents: Israel will gain from Muslims in Syrian, Egyptian governments
Pro-Syrian protagonists reply: Most of the experts predicted that the popular movement to depose Hosni Mubarak did not have a chance – but it succeeded. Times are changing and events are rushing forward at a much faster pace than ever before.
To make their point, the pro-Syrian group points to the way Assad is obstructing Tehran's plan for its pawn, Najib Miqati, to form a pro-Iranian Hizballah-led government in Beirut and get the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination disqualified before it publishes indictments against senior Hizballah security officers.
Because of Assad's interference, Miqati is getting nowhere in building a coalition government and, meanwhile, the tribunal has held its first hearing and moving forward.
As matters stand now, there will be no Lebanese government to block its advance by pulling Lebanese judges off the STL bench.
That shows the Syrian ruler is capable of breaking away from Tehran when it suits his book – in this case for showing Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah which way the winds blow in Beirut and forcing him to acknowledge its greater dependence on Damascus than on Tehran. The American proponents of the bid to mend US fences with Syria maintain that Assad is doing his best to cut Iran out of its involvement in Lebanon, which signifies a willingness to accept that not all Syrian interests coincide with Iran's, a positive signal for the future.
They also see long-term benefit in paving the way for peace talks with Israel, the chances for which were enhanced, they say, by the upheaval in Egypt.
Washington will not only lean hard on the military junta ruling Egypt to uphold its peace treaty with Israel, but also believes it is the right moment to get Syria and Israel back to the negotiating table.
If they can reach a peace accord – or even an interim or phased deal for Israel to gradually withdraw from the Golan in return for full diplomatic relations between Damascus and Jerusalem and the eviction from Damascus of the Palestinian terrorist groups enjoying Syrian hospitality – Israel would benefit, say the proponents of dialogue with Syria, by gaining two peaceful fronts – Egypt in the south and Syria in the north.