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New Era in U.S.-Syria Relations?

Ambassador Robert Ford appears before a full committee hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to Syria at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on March 16, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Ford
Ambassador Robert Ford appears before a Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2010.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

After nearly a six-year chill in U.S.-Syrian diplomatic relations, the newly-appointed American ambassador arrives in Damascus Sunday to confront an off-putting list of diplomatic concerns, typifying the Obama administration's faith in engagement over isolation.

Robert Ford had long been the U.S. administration's choice to fill a post left vacant since 2005, when President George W. Bush recalled his envoy from Damascus following Syria's alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. [A United Nations tribunal investigating the car bombing which took Hariri's life is said to be close to announcing indictments in the case.]

Lebanon's Parliament is set to pick a new prime minister on Tuesday after two days of debate in the legislature. Premier Saad Hariri was ousted from the post by the opposition last Wednesday.

But the country's political future could be decided in Damascus this weekend.

Although Ford is likely to have his hands full juggling multiple diplomatic files, the situation in Lebanon, Syria's tiny neighbor to the west, could be the immediate test of Washington's diplomatic outreach to Syria.

Syrian sources revealed on Saturday that Ford "was arriving tomorrow," as U.S. State Department officials confirmed the envoy was on his way to the Syrian capital, a key player in the region.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has said that the United States has "significant interests in Damascus and across the Middle East," and that "a high-level representative in Damascus will make it possible to deliver strong, consistent messages to the Syrian Government and further U.S. interests and security."

Syria's own immediate objectives include economic incentives (as its oil reserves dwindle); a return of the Golan Heights from Israel; and regime stability.

President Obama nominated Ford in February, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported his nomination favorably to the full Senate in April.

But Republicans raised objections, seeing the full resumption of diplomatic relations as a reward for Syria in spite of its close ties to the Lebanese paramilitary Shiite party Hezbollah and its support for Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which rules Gaza.

Both factions - considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government - are seen in Syria and the wider Arab world as legitimate resistance movements and political parties.

Washington's ties with Damascus have also been strained by American allegations of Syria's meddling in the affairs of Iraq (its neighbor to the east) and over its ties to Iran.

While criticizing the appointment, Republicans have not questioned the qualifications of Ford, a veteran diplomat in the Arab world who has served as ambassador to Algeria and held senior posts in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Last month, President Obama bypassed Republican opposition by making a recess appointment of Ford while the Senate was out of session. Ford can serve without Senate confirmation until the end of the next session of Congress, or about a year.

"The US diplomat will need to rebuild trust between his country and Syria, both government and public alike. The eight years of Bush damaged America's image in the eyes of ordinary Arabs - in many cases, beyond repair," a Syrian professor told CBS News.

"Obama is a realist who realizes that if he wants to achieve substantial results in the Middle East, he needs to go through proper channels," said political analyst Sami Moubayed.

"Regardless of whether he agrees with Syria or not, he needs a top diplomat in Damascus to channel his views to the Syrian government. Even at the height of the Cold War, for example, the U.S. Embassy never closed in Moscow," he adds.

Some positive signs have emerged from Washington's engagement of Syria, such as Syrian-Saudi cooperation on the issue of Lebanon, and recent reports indicating strong Syrian willingness to engage in direct peace talks with the Israelis.

Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, were halted in December 2008 when Israel began a three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets across its southern border. Israel's attack on a Turkish vessel carrying relief supplies to Gaza in May in which nine NGO workers were shot dead by Israeli Special Forces also hampered relations.

"Before landing in Syria he might wish to call up his predecessor Christopher Ross, who remembers only too well his famous jogs in the streets of Damascus, where he felt safe enough to exercise with no security by his side," Moubayed suggests.