DOHA, Qatar, April 1, 2009 -- A top Syrian official tells ABC News that President Obama has "changed everything in the world" and left the international community "more optimistic."
Syrian presidential adviser Dr. Buthaina Shaaban spoke with ABC News during the Arab League Summit in Doha, Qatar.
The longtime government official has been intimately involved in Syrian foreign policy. Earlier this month she met with two U.S. diplomats, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman and envoy Daniel Shapiro, sent to Damascus by Obama to start mending relations with the Arab state.
U.S.-Syrian relations were strained under the Bush administration. America withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, widely blamed on Syria. President Bashar al Assad denied any link between his government and the Beirut bombing that killed Hariri.
More than four years later the United States is courting Syrian support for a stable Iraq and encouraging efforts by Syria's regional rivals, Saudi Arabia in particular, to welcome the long-isolated state back into the fold.
This week's Arab League Summit was seen as a culmination of that effort, the completion of a reconciliation forged at recent meetings in Riyadh and Kuwait. As one of its long-term goals in the region the United States could rekindle talks between Syria and Israel. The neighboring states, officially still at war, reportedly came close to a deal through Turkish-led mediation efforts last year.
Shaaban spoke to ABC News about America's Middle East policy, Obama's Syrian outreach and prospects for peace with Israel.
ABC News: What's your take-away from this one-day Arab summit? What do you think was accomplished?
Shaaban: I think we're going away with the best results we could have hoped for. We agreed on essential issues ...and the presence of President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan was an important because most Arabs reject the indictment against him.
ABC News: Why? Why the Arab support for Al Bashir?
Shaaban: Because the negotiations for Darfur almost reached a result at the time the indictment came down. I think they should have given the negotiations the time and space to mature and to yield results. It's unprecedented to indict a sitting president and it's like a slap in the face on all Arab leaders, not just the president of Sudan.
'Barack Obama Has Changed Everything'
ABC News: This is the first Arab League conference since President Obama took office. Was that felt? Did it come up or change the substance or tenor?
Shaaban: I think the presence of Barack Obama has changed everything in the world, whether consciously or unconsciously. I think everybody feels more optimistic, more hopeful now that President Obama is speaking about dialogue and not preemptive strikes as the previous administration. Most importantly, he works on the basis of respect, I think this is what the Arabs need most.
ABC News: President Obama sent two officials to meet with you and your colleagues in Damascus. How would you describe that meeting?
Shaaban: I think it was a very good meeting. This is the natural course of relations between countries, that Feltman said we are coming to engage, to dialogue and to see what are the points we agree upon, what are the points we differ about. That seemed to us like normal countries with normal relations, approaching in a respectable fashion.
ABC News: What were the topics on the table? What did they ask for?
Shaaban: They didn't ask for anything specific. They just said let us see where you stand on Iraq and where we stand, where you stand on Lebanon and where we stand. Let us see what is the common ground on which we can work and let us see where we differ so we can talk about our differences. The meeting lasted for about 3½ hours and we all felt that it was a very good meeting.
ABC News: What do you think are the most promising areas for U.S.-Syrian cooperation?
Shaaban: I think Iraq is one of the most promising areas, because we both feel that Iraq's stability and security is very important, both for the U.S. and for Syria. We would like to help in scheduling the withdrawal in any way so that Iraq can go back to its normal life as an independent Arab country without partitioning, without federation. This is an area in which we both agreed. We both expressed our hope that the Lebanese elections are going to go well and Lebanon will stay one united country, a democracy.
Syria on Talks With Israel
ABC News: Where do you think is the biggest rift?
Shaaban: It would be on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They always speak about the security of Israel, but what about the security of Arabs? What about settlements? We would like the U.S. administration to think of the Arabs as valuable people as it thinks of Israelis as valuable people. We're no less precious.
ABC News: Do you see Syrian talks with Israel picking up again, perhaps with the U.S. as a mediator?
Shaaban: Peace is a strategic choice for Syria. Unfortunately until now the Israeli side has not been accepting terms for peace, Security Council resolutions or the "Land for Peace" formula. You hear them now talking about economic peace or peace for peace. You hear people like [Israeli hard-liner] Avigdor Lieberman saying we should use nuclear bombs against the Arabs. This is not very promising. The Arabs would like to make peace but without giving up our rights or any of our territories. The more we wait the harder achieving peace is going to be.
ABC News: Do you see those talks resuming? Do they have any promise at this stage?
Shaaban: They had promise. We were talking about the line of June 1967. But the problem is every time we reach a promising point the Israelis back away from it. That happened in Shepherdstown in 2000. I was there with [then-Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak. It happened with Olmert...that doesn't show real intention for making peace. Does the Israeli side want to make peace? That is the real question.
ABC News: What do you make of the [newly sworn-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu victory? How will it impact Syria's position?
Shaaban: I don't know. Netanyahu keeps speaking about economic peace as if the Palestinian issue were a humanitarian issue. It's a political issue, it's about land and water. It's about the future of millions of Palestinians. Unless he recognizes that there's going to be no future prospect for peace.
ABC News: Could you see Syria engaging in talks, indirect or otherwise, with the Netanyahu government?
Shaaban: It depends on then. If they were to recognize our rights, if they were to acknowledge Security Council resolutions and what they dictate for Israel to do, to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, then when do mind.
On Hamas and Hezbollah
ABC News: But short of that, no talks?
Shaaban: No talks.
ABC News: Will Syria's relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas evolve as its relations with the U.S. evolve?
Shaaban: Hamas and Hezbollah are two resistance groups. They are there because of the Israeli occupation. This is a result, not a cause. You need to remove the cause, which is the occupation, and then naturally you'd deal with the result.
ABC News: So there's no reason Syria's support for those groups would change?
ABC News: Syria is being talked of in terms of strategic realignment, moving away from Iran as it broadens its ties in the region and ties with the West. Would that happen? What do you see as Syria's direction?
Shaaban: Syria has historic relations with Iran. It is an important neighbor and our relation with Iran is good for us, just as our relation with Turkey is good for us. I don't think anybody can put a condition on us that you have to have this relationship with this country or that country. Imagine we say to Israel you can't negotiate with us unless you give up your relation with the United States. [During the Iran-Iraq War] we stood with Iran against Saddam Hussein when the U.S. supported him. We were right, [America] was wrong. Who says we're not right again?