There are no campaign rallies or bumper stickers for him in Syria, no “Yes We Can” T-shirts on sale, but Obamamania has definitely infected the “beating heart of Arab nationalism,” as it once called itself. During my recent visit to Damascus, Syrian officials and the political elite seemed captivated by Barack Obama, well before it was clear that the Democrats’ charismatic young superstar would be the party’s presidential nominee.
Partly, it’s Obama’s youth that makes him attractive to Syrians, roughly half of whom are under 18 and whose own president, Bashar Assad, is four years younger than Obama. “But it’s not just Obama’s age that we like,” says Obaida Hamad, a 32-year-old reporter for Syria Today, the country’s only independent, English-language magazine. “Syrians think that as a man of color, Obama may understand the Muslim and Arab worlds better than Hillary Clinton or John McCain,” he says. “And we are fed up with over a decade of American leadership in the hands of two families—Clinton and Bush. For us,” he says—diplomatically omitting the fact that President Assad, who has now ruled for eight years, succeeded his father, Hafez el-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades—“Obama represents new blood.”
“America desperately needs a logo change,” agrees Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s Minister of Expatriates and President Assad’s confidante. An Obama Administration, she says, would change both the content and tone of American foreign policy. “The United States should not continue trying to impose its opinions on the world,” she says. “Nor should you be so self-congratulatory.”
Syria’s enthusiasm for Obama, so widely shared among Muslim Arabs, is not surprising, given his endorsement of directly engaging states like Syria through creative diplomacy. Obama has repeatedly said that the United States should not speak only to its friends, but also to its enemies—in most cases, without the onerous “preconditions” that the Bush administration has laid down and that Syrian officials reject as tantamount to preemptive surrender. This prescription is most welcome in Syria, which despite its oil is a relatively poor nation of some 19 million people, squeezed by American-led economic sanctions and hemmed in politically between more powerful states. Above all, Syria yearns to be taken seriously, or as Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the country’s leadership, puts it, a state that “seeks to project regional influence well above its weight by appearing to keep all options open to balance contradictory policies, like allying itself with Iran and hosting terrorist groups while offering peace talks with its enemies.”
At its core, Syria’s Obama infatuation reflects its intense disdain for President Bush, another widely shared sentiment in Arab circles. For the past three years, Washington has tried hard, if unsuccessfully, to isolate Damascus, citing what it claims are Syria’s secret efforts to develop a nuclear capacity, its pernicious meddling in neighboring Lebanon, its help in sending foreign fighters and arms across its border into Iraq, and its support for militant Islamists throughout the region—for Hamas in Gaza, Islamic Jihad in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iran, whose interests often coincide with but are not identical to its own.
The U.S. had cooperated rather well with Syria on counterterrorism and other intelligence issues until the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a skeptic about engagement with Damascus, says that even after Syria opposed Iraq’s invasion, the Bush Administration sent at least five senior-level delegations between 2003 and 2005 to try to persuade President Assad to abandon his “unhelpful behavior”—to no avail.
But after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others died in a car bomb attack in Beirut in February 2005, White House hardliners, who had long regarded Syria as an unofficial member of the administration’s “axis of evil”—a regime that deserves international quarantine—gained the upper hand. Media reports and many Lebanese blamed the assassination on Syria, and though Damascus denied responsibility, Washington withdrew its ambassador, a post that has remained vacant ever since. Soon after Hariri’s death, massive Lebanese anti-Syrian protests, coupled with international pressure, forced President Assad to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon. American-led financial sanctions were then broadened. A United Nations tribunal still investigating the assassination has already suggested, in an initial draft report, that Syrian intelligence agents may well have been involved.
Since Hariri’s murder, White House hardliners have consistently beaten back efforts by some administration officials and outside analysts to reengage with Damascus, as Obama recommends. Critics of U.S. policy argue that talks are the best means of prying Syria away from its longstanding alliance with Iran, and hence of blocking Teheran’s efforts to become the region’s dominant power. The administration, however, has recently seen its isolation policy undermined by two stunning events, both involving American allies. In April, Qatar brokered a deal to end the protracted political crisis in Lebanon that gives Iranian-and-Syrian-backed Hezbollah sufficient representation in Parliament to block any proposal it dislikes and gives Lebanon the president that Syria favors. Shortly thereafter came news that Turkey would broker indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel. Syria’s acceptance of the Israeli initiative stunned many analysts in Damascus and Washington, since Israel had bombed an alleged North Korean–supplied nuclear facility in northern Syria last September and is believed to have killed Imad Mughniyyeh, Hezbollah’s operations chief, in one of the most secure sectors of Damascus in February.
If the resolution of the Lebanon crisis showed the limits of America’s ability to thwart Hezbollah in its power struggle with Lebanon’s secular, pro-Western forces, the Israeli initiative effectively pulled the administration’s isolationist rug out from under it. While the Bush administration has offered lukewarm support for the Syrian-Israeli peace talks, both Obama and John McCain quickly said they supported the discussions, for which Israel had pressed. Syrians now believe that the impending American presidential elections hold the promise of engagement not just with Israel, but with Washington—the real prize. In an interview in April with the Qatari daily Al Watan, President Assad said that to move from indirect to direct talks with Israel, the United States would have to get involved. “Direct negotiations require a sponsor, which can only be the U.S.,” the paper quoted Assad as saying. “[The problem is that] the current administration has no vision or desire for a peace process.”
Underscoring the message, Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, told the Wall Street Journal this weekend that Syria is “genuine in its desire to have the best relationship with Washington.” At the moment, he told me, Syrian officials have no contacts with the Bush administration. Ibrahim Hamidi, the well-connected Damascus bureau chief of the Arabic daily Al Hayat, says that in pursuing indirect talks with Israel now—despite the apparently imminent resignation of their primary sponsor, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert—Damascus is “putting the Syrian track on the agenda of the next American administration,” whoever may lead it.
Damascus clearly favors Obama, but Ambassador Moustapha counsels caution. Writing in the Forward, a pro-regime monthly, he described as “wishful thinking” the widespread Syrian view “that the demise of the Republicans is inevitable.” McCain, he wrote, “has a solid chance of winning the next election.”
Syria’s renewed interest in talking to Israel seems aimed at making it as difficult as possible for whoever emerges as the victor in November to ignore Damascus.