As more US officials visit Syria, the president must be careful with any concessions.
As a Middle East way station for terrorists, Syria can't be ignored. Candidate Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to engage Syria in contrast to President Bush's attempt to isolate it. Now a limited engagement has begun and it's time to ask what President Obama will give up as he tiptoes toward the likelihood of bazaar-like haggling with Damascus.
Obama's first serious feelers are out. He gave a nod of approval for trips last week to Syria by the heads of the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Howard Berman. With no US ambassador in Syria since 2005, their talks with President Bashar Assad probably revealed the hurdles that lie ahead for a workable US-Syrian relationship that could alter the region's dangerous dynamics and help Obama contain Iran.
The next logical steps would be visits by Middle East envoy George Mitchell and regional commander Gen. David Petraeus, and then reopening the US embassy. Ultimately, an Obama-Assad summit would seal a deal. But first, Americans need to know what critical US compromises might be on the table, given that Syria is still labeled by the US as a terrorist state.
The US has tried soft diplomacy before with Syria, under President Clinton and pre-911 Bush. Both attempts revealed a Damascus unwilling to give up ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, or to end its dark influence in Lebanon. The Assad regime, based on the rule of the minority Alawite tribe, needs the economic benefits of those ties and a perception of external threats to control internal dissent.