The real surprise about re-deployment of an American ambassador in Damascus this week was that the breakthrough was so softly made. Given the high expectations of what many in the West deem Syria to be capable of delivering a land-for-peace deal with Israel,reversal of its support to Iranian-backed groups like the Hezbollah,denial of support to insurgents headed to Iraq that is perhaps how it should be.
The US had snapped diplomatic relations with Syria in 2005 amidst allegations of a Syrian hand in the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. Even before that,relations were not particularly cordial,with the US terming Syria a state sponsor of terrorism and imposing strict economic sanctions. But over the past year a change in tenor,a sense that Syrias isolation was ending,was discernible. George Mitchell,the American presidents special envoy to the Middle East,met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad soon after Barack Obamas Cairo address. The air has also been thick with speculation about the fate of secret talks between Israel and Syria. Over the last couple of years,Syria has also energised its diplomatic dealings,with Assad straining to underscore Damascuss long-time relations with countries near and far. French President Nicolas Sarkozys initiative in the summer of 2008 to form a grouping of Mediterranean states proved particularly beneficial,with Sarkozy brokering resumption of diplomatic ties between Syria and Lebanon.
So,is American Under-Secretary of State William Burnss visit to Damascus a sign that Syria is distancing itself from Iran? Thats unlikely. But it certainly indicates that Syria is working towards a more cordial balancing of its stated concerns: to reverse its economic isolation and draw foreign investment,and to be a stakeholder in its neighbourhood.