Nov 7, 2008

Abu Hussein's invitation to Damascus
By Sami Moubayed 

DAMASCUS - In the Muslim world, men take pride in their first born baby boy and 
they are often called "the father of X" for the remainder of their lives. In 
turn, first born boys are named after their grandfathers, and this explains why 
Syrians affectionately call Barack Obama "Abu Hussein" (father of Hussein). 

He does not have a baby boy - just two beautiful girls - yet that doesn't 
really matter for the overwhelmed Syrians who woke up to hear the news coming 
in from Washington on November 5 that Barack Hussein Obama had become the 44th 
president of the United States. 

As far as they are concerned, his father's name is Hussein and when Obama gets 
a baby boy, he is going to call him Hussein. That is the tradition in the 
Muslim world after all, and Obama comes from Muslim lineage in Kenya. Gamal 
Abdul-Nasser of Egypt was "Abu Khaled", Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is 
"Abu Hadi", Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat was "Abu 
Ammar" and for masses in the Arab world, Barack Obama is "Abu Hussein". 

This terminology was coined by ordinary Syrians who watched the presidential 
race with enthusiasm - glad to see the end of President George W Bush. 

All the same, Syrians have no illusions that the president-elect is going to be 
a savior for the Arabs. They hope that he will be more fair and even-handed 
when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and end the tension that started 
between Damascus and Washington under the Bush administration. They realize, 
however, that his election shows just how far America has come in terms of 
racial equality, and everybody in Damascus - young and old - is impressed. 

In August, hosted by an American organization called Search for Common Ground, 
three Syrians went to Washington and met with think-tanks, newspapers and 
loyalists of Obama, discussing ways to move bilateral relations forward once 
Bush leaves the White House. 

For the past 12 months, Damascus has welcomed a wide array of US officials who 
are either members of the Obama team or supporters of the new president. All of 
them came carrying a similar message: The policy of no dialogue with Damascus 
under Bush has been unproductive for the region and the United States. That is 
going to change, they said, when Obama reaches the White House. 

All of them were warmly received by the Syrians, at a popular and official 
level, including former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and former national security 
advisor under president Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter even 
spoke to students at one of the new private universities in Syria, who 
applauded strongly whenever he mentioned "President Obama". 

Syrians were especially thrilled when Obama refused to praise the US strike on 
Syria in October, unlike his Republican opponent Senator John McCain. Syrian 
dailies and magazines have been running front page news of Obama - almost 
neglecting McCain. 

Officially, Syria is yet to comment on Obama's victory and President Bashar 
al-Assad was often quoted during the presidential race as saying that Syria 
would wait to see the position of winner towards the Middle East once he 
reached the White House. 

Syria was worried at Obama's strong support for Israel - although it came as no 
surprise - during his visit to Tel Aviv some months ago. They have not 
forgotten the overwhelming support Arabs showed for George W Bush in 2000, 
thinking that he would be a much better president for the Arabs than Al Gore. 
Therefore, officially, it is still a wait-and-see policy, although there is 
universal unsaid conviction that McCain would have been an extension of Bush 
and at least Obama - a man who champions change - is going to be different. 

The Syrians are willing to cooperate with Obama on a variety of issues, prime 
on the list being Iraq. In the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid 
al-Mouallem, Syria will help secure an "honorable exit" for the US from Iraq. 
Damascus was very close to suspending diplomatic relations with Baghdad after 
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki failed to prevent the October strike on 
Syria - which was launched from Iraqi territory - but did not do so, to keep 
channels open with the Obama administration and to better deliver security in 

Syrian troop numbers have been reduced at the border, but not withdrawn 
completely, in objection to the raid, but security coordination with Baghdad 
(at a ministerial level) remains intact, to prevent jihadis from crossing the 
border into Iraq. 

If Obama sends off positive signals to Syria, troops can return to the 
Syrian-Iraqi border. Syria's newly appointed ambassador, Nawaf al-Fares, 
remains at his job in Baghdad, building bridges with Iraqi Sunnis (he hails 
from a prominent tribe that overlaps between Syria and Iraq). On the day of the 
Obama victory, Assad received a delegation sent to Damascus by Shi'ite leader 
Muqtada al-Sadr. Scores of Iraqi leaders - Shi'ite, Kurd and Sunni - have been 
coming to Syria for the past four years, meeting with Syrian officials who are 
trying to build bridges between warring factions to help normalize and 
stabilize Iraq. 

Syria can also still use its weight in the region to moderate the behavior of 
non-state players like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, and find 
solutions for the US standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. What the 
Syrians are expecting 11 weeks from now when Obama is sworn in as president is 
the following:

a.. Appointment of a US ambassador to Syria. The post has been vacant since 
Margaret Scooby was withdrawn when relations plummeted over Lebanon in 2005. 
This would be accompanied by greater room to maneuver for Syria's ambassador to 
the US, Imad Mustapha, who has been spurned by the Bush administration because 
of his criticism of how Bush treated Syria. 

a.. An end to the anti-Syrian rhetoric coming out of the White House and State 
Department since 2003. That would automatically reduce the anti-Syrian 
sentiment in the US media. 

a.. Recognition of Syria's cooperation on border security with Iraq.

a.. Cooperation with Syria to deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

a.. Lifting - in due course - of the sanctions that were imposed on Damascus 
and abolishment of the Syrian Accountability Act. 

a.. Willingness to sponsor Syria's indirect peace talks with Israel, currently 
on hold in Turkey. That is something Bush curtly refused to do since the talks 
started in April 2008, claiming that Syria was more interested in a peace 
process than a peace treaty. Syria is sincere and the new White House must 
acknowledge that to deliver peaceful results in the Middle East. American 
guarantees and willingness to serve as an honest broker could make the talks 
successful, the Syrians believe, transforming them from indirect to direct 
negotiations. Syria is determined to regain the occupied Golan Heights (taken 
by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967) and Obama must help Syria 
achieve that if he is sincere about change in the region. 

a.. Recognizing that no problems can be solved in the Middle East without Syria 
with regard to the Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese. Bush launched his famous 
"roadmap" for peace between Israel and Palestine, but bypassed the Syrians. If 
another roadmap were to be launched, Syria would have to be included. 

a.. Help Syria combat Islamic fundamentalism that has been flowing into its 
territory from north Lebanon and Iraq. The deadly September 27 attack in 
Damascus - which left nearly 40 Syrians dead and injured - should have been a 
wake-up call for the Americans that unless cooperation is forthcoming from the 
US, Syria might become a battleground for extremists, as in the 1980s. 
Intelligence cooperation and technical assistance with the Americans is needed 
to curb and combat this Islamic threat. 

a.. An apology, compensation and explanation for the air raid on Syria that 
left eight Syrian civilians dead in October 2008.

a.. Help normalize relations between Syria and America on a people-to-people 
level, which have been strained since Bush came to power in 2001. That would 
include giving visas to Syrians wanting to study or work in the US. 

When all this is done, Syria would be willing to open its arms to Abu Hussein, 
receiving him perhaps as a guest of honor in Damascus, the way it did with 
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. 

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus. 

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