Election 2008 The World is Watching

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Syria: Beyond the 'Axis of Evil'?

How should the next U.S. president deal with a country often at odds with U.S. policy in the Middle East?

BY Kate SeelyeOctober 24, 2008
related links

» Lebanon: A Fate Tied to Washington

» Syria/Lebanon: The Occupier and the Occupied

» Lebanon: The Earthquake

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PBS Vote 2008

Part 1: Good
Morning, Syria »

An isolated regime claims it is reforming and reaching out to the West, and it hopes the next president is watching.

Part 2: Talking Peace »
Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel are underway. Is this an historic opening, or is a pressured regime trying to buy time?

Part 3: A Death in Damascus »
A recent assassination raises questions about the future of Syria's relationship with Hezbollah and Iran.

Kate Seelye

Kate Seelye is a TV and radio reporter based in Beirut and a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World.

Editor's Note
As we prepared to publish this report, U.S. Special Operations forces mounted a rare, cross-border raid into Syria, killing an Iraqi militant known as Abu Ghadiya. As a reputed senior member of "Al Qaeda in Iraq" based on the Syrian side of the border, Ghadiya was believed to have been a major smuggler of weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq. American officials said little about the timing of the attack, which surprised those who had seen Syria praised in recent months for its efforts to stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq. The raid, which also killed a number of civilians, appeared to be part of a more aggressive Bush administration effort to strike at cross-border targets threatening U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, in an earlier report for FRONTLINE/World, Kate Seelye visited a town not far from the recent attack and tried to find out what the Syrian government was doing about the foreign fighters. Seelye's most recent reporting for FRONTLINE/World (shown in the video above) grew out of a trip to Syria in the summer of 2008 at a moment when President Bashar al-Assad was campaigning hard to reposition his country on the world stage.

* * *

I sensed a new confidence in the Syrian capital Damascus during my visit this summer. The pages of the many society magazines the city enjoys provided some context for the optimism. They featured lengthy photo spreads of Syrian president Bashar al Assad and his elegant British-born Syrian wife, Asma, on a visit to France being feted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Bastille Day.

In one picture, the first couple smiled radiantly at the cameras as they passed a French honor guard on their way to an official dinner. Their appearance in France was indeed a triumph. It was the Syrian president's first invitation abroad from a Western head of state since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The visit prompted headlines like this one from The New York Times -- "Sarkozy Helps to Bring Syria Out of Isolation."

It had been a lonely three and a half years for the Assad regime after the Bush administration blamed Damascus for the Hariri killing, a charge Syrian officials have denied. In response to the assassination, Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and cut off all high level political ties, as did many European governments, including France, Syria's closest European backer.

Relations between Syria and the U.S. -- never good in the best of times -- deteriorated rapidly under the Bush administration. Tensions mounted in 2003 when Syria sided openly with Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the Iraq war; they were further strained after Saddam's overthrow when Syria allowed foreign insurgents to cross its border into Iraq to fight coalition soldiers.


The ancient Syrian capital of Damascus.

By the end of the year, Congress had imposed sanctions on Syria saying that it supported terrorism and for its occupation of neighboring Lebanon. It was time for "behavior change" in Damascus, Washington asserted.

But it was Hariri's assassination in a massive car bomb attack on Valentine's Day in 2005 that brought U.S.-Syrian relations to a new low. The murder of the popular and unifying politician, who had helped rebuild Beirut after 15 years of civil war, left the Lebanese outraged. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon after 30 years of occupation. The demand was echoed by the U.S.

In parliamentary elections that followed -- the first free of direct Syrian involvement in decades -- Lebanon elected a U.S.-backed government. But it was soon undermined by a campaign of bombings and assassinations directed at anti-Syrian politicians. Again Washington placed the blame firmly at Syria's door.

Shortly after Hariri's death, U.N. investigators arrived in Beirut to investigate the assassination, and rumors swirled that President Assad might be implicated in the killing. Back in Washington, the talk had turned from "behavior change" to "regime change."

But today the tribunal into Hariri's murder is stalled, a new French president has decided that Damascus is the key to stabilizing the Middle East; and even Israel, a long-time Syrian enemy, is holding indirect peace talks with the Assad regime.

Syrian president Bashar al Assad

A billboard featuring Syria's president Bashar al Assad.

Now, Syrian officials have their eyes set on a thaw with the U.S. They're banking on an Obama administration to support their peace talks with the Israelis. There are grounds for optimism. Not only has Obama publicly endorsed Israeli-Syrian peace talks, but last August Obama's foreign policy advisor, Daniel Kurtzer, visited Damascus and encouraged the Syrians to step up their talks with Israel.

Syria is less certain about what a McCain presidency might yield. In the past, McCain has backed talks with Damascus. But his current foreign policy team advocates maintaining pressure on Syria and Iran for their support of terrorist groups and has stated that Arab-Israeli peace talks are not a top priority.

Regardless, Syria watchers believe both candidates will ultimately engage with Damascus. They note that even the Bush administration is talking again with the Syrians. Just last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss regional events.

Syria and the U.S. do have some shared interests -- among them is the fight against terrorism. Just after I left Syria, Damascus was wracked by a massive car bombing, the largest in decades, killing 17 people. The Assad regime blamed Islamic terrorists for the bombing. Attacks like this one point to tensions within Syria as it stands at a political crossroads and decides whether to stick with its long-standing alliances with Iran and militant groups such as Hezbollah or move toward closer ties with the West.