US Engagement With Syria: A Timeline

Patrick Goodenough | May 17, 2011 | 8:47pm EDT
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The Obama administration has sought better ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad, seen here with visiting U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Damascus on July 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

(CNSNews) – presents a timeline of U.S.-Syrian relations since 2005 and efforts made by members of both parties in the United States to engage, or promote engagement with, the Assad regime.

Feb. 14, 2005

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is killed, along with 22 others, in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut. (U.N. investigators will later accuse high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officers; Assad denies involvement.)

Feb. 15, 2005

Declaring “profound outrage” at the murder, the Bush administration withdraws Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus. Washington is already unhappy with Syria over its military presence in Lebanon, support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, and failure to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Dec. 6, 2006

The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, recommends that the U.S. engage both Syria and its ally, Iran, as part of a broader change in strategy on Iraq.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) urge Bush to reject the recommendation, saying negotiating with the regimes would “legitimate” them and reward hostile behavior.

Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) says he is “pleased” with the recommendation and hopes Bush will consider it seriously.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he does “not object to reasonable efforts that might modify these countries’ behavior in Iraq, but if the price of their cooperation is an easing of pressure on Tehran over its nuclear ambitions, or on Damascus over the Syrian role in Lebanon, then that price is too high.”

Dec. 2006

Several U.S. Senators visit Damascus, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on Dec. 13; Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on Dec. 20; and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on Dec. 26.

Dec. 13, 2006

Bush issues a statement expressing support for “Syrian people’s desire for democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression. Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force.”

Dec. 14, 2006

White House spokesman Tony Snow responds to the congressional visits by saying, “Even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region. A lot of times a member of Congress may think, well, I’m going to go there, and I’m going to tell them … I’m going to take a tough line. You can take a tough line all you want, but the Syrians have already won a PR victory.”

Jan. 10, 2007

In a major speech announcing the Iraq troop “surge,” Bush implicitly rules out engaging Syria and Iran, accusing them of “allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq” and warning the U.S. will respond.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on April 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Apr. 2007

More U.S. lawmakers visit Damascus, including Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) on Apr.1; a delegation led by then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Apr. 4; and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Apr. 5.

Apr. 3-4, 2007

As the most senior American politician to meet with Assad since the ambassador’s withdrawal, Pelosi comes in for particular criticism, especially after saying after the meetings “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.”

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe retorts, “Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq. It’s lined with the victims in Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy there. It'’ lined with human rights activists trying for freedom and democracy in Syria.”

“We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals,” President Bush tells reporters. “Photo opportunities and/or meetings with Assad lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community.”

Responding to the criticism, Kerry says “America would be stronger if the White House started listening to Speaker Pelosi, Secretary James Baker, countless Republicans and everyone else who understands that effective foreign policy often requires talking with countries who aren’t our friends.”

May 3, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets briefly with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, at an Iraq summit in Egypt.

Jul. 23, 2007

During a Democratic presidential primary debate, Sen. Obama is asked whether he would meet with Assad (as well as the leaders of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea) “in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries.” He replies that he would, adding that “the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them – which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration – is ridiculous.”

Syrian President Bashir Assad holds discussions with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, in Damascus on November 8, 2010. (Photo: SANA)

Feb. 21, 2009

Kerry, newly appointed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visits Syria.

Jul. 26, 2009

Administration sends Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus.

Feb. 16, 2010

Obama nominates Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria.

Feb. 17, 2010

Administration dispatches undersecretary for political affairs William Burns to Damascus. Burns says he and Assad “talked candidly about the areas in which we disagree, but also identified the areas of common ground on which we can build.”

Feb. 24, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells lawmakers that the Obama administration is urging Syria to move away from its “deeply troubling” relationship with Iran.

Feb. 25. 2010

In a show of defiance, Assad hosts a three-way solidarity meeting in Damascus with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Mar. 31, 2010

Kerry visits Syria.

Apr. 13, 2010

Senate Foreign Relations Committee approves Ford nomination by voice vote, but the nomination is held up by Republican senators. Critics tell Secretary of State Clinton “the U.S. pays a price for lending even a modicum of international legitimacy to a regime like Syria’s.”

May 22, 2010

Kerry visits Syria.

Nov. 8, 2010

Kerry visits Syria.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took up his post in Damascus in January 2011, after President Obama appointed him during a congressional recess. (Photo: U.S. Embassy, Damascus)

Dec. 29, 2010

Obama appoints Ford as ambassador during congressional recess, drawing criticism from Republicans.

Late Jan./early Feb. 2011

Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians begin to protest, calling for reforms and an end to the Assad regime.

Mar. 15, 2011

Syrian crackdown on anti-government protests begins. Over the next six weeks more than 300 people will be killed across the country.

Mar. 16 2011

In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on U.S. policy in the light of Arab protests, Kerry refers to developments in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Lebanon – but makes no reference to Syria. Asked about Syria during a question-and-answer session afterwards, he expresses optimism that the bilateral relationship will improve but says nothing about the need for internal reform.

Mar. 27, 2011

Clinton in an interview draws a distinction between Assad and his late father and predecessor, Hafez el-Assad: “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Mar. 28, 2011

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty urges Obama to recall Ford.

Apr. 2, 2011

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) says Obama should withdraw Ford.

Apr. 15, 2011

Clinton criticizes Assad for not addressing “the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” and says it is “time for the Syrian government to stop repressing their citizens.”

Apr. 16, 2011

Assad offers concessions including a lifting of 48 years of emergency rule. Protests continue and spread.

Apr. 22, 2011

As many as 112 people are killed in the deadliest single day of protests so far. Obama says “this outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”

Apr. 22, 2011

Pawlenty again urges Obama to recall Ford, and to call an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting “to condemn the Syrian regime’s murderous conduct.”

Apr. 29, 2011

Obama imposes sanctions – an asset freeze and a ban on business dealings with the U.S. – on three senior Syrian regime officials – Assad’s brother, Mahir; the president’s cousin, Atif Najib; and his intelligence chief Ali Mamluk – but not Assad himself.


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