Syria's tepid hope in Obama

Many believe nothing will change in US Middle East policy.

    Syrians think Obama will continue to strongly support Israel [GALLO/GETTY]

    It has been more than a month since Barack Obama was elected US president and with five weeks to go until his inauguration, the excitement in the US is quite palpable. 

    The president-elect continues to make headlines as he begins to outline economic policy and pick known politicians to fill out his cabinet. His latest choices of Clinton-era pundits have created the type of controversy political talk shows crave.

    However, in conflict regions of the Middle East, which have been a focus of much of America's foreign policy in the past five years, the reaction ranges from casual indifference to cautious optimism.

    In a four-part series highlighting Middle East reaction one month on, Al Jazeera looks at the Obama factor in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the West Bank.

    The election of Barack Obama may have stirred enthusiasm around the world, but there were no street parties in Damascus on the night of his victory.

    Unlike the days following the recent US strike in eastern Syria, when the city's cafés, bars, busses, and parks were buzzing with chatter about the attack, there has been distinctly little hype here about the incoming president.

    The closest most Damascenes get to relating with Obama's mantra of worldwide hope is a tepid "inshallah (God willing), he'll be better than Bush".

    'Two faces, same coin'

    The first sign of anticipation to emerge after the elections was not about Obama at all.

    The day after the elections, the front page of a local newspaper displayed a frowning George Bush, the US president, as it has every day since, next to a large number counting the days until he leaves office.

    On a street corner in Damascus' Jeramana suburb, a man in a factory-worn baseball cap serves tea and coffee to passing cars out of the back of an old Volkswagen van; his cigarette always dangling from his lips.

    In between serving caffeine-hungry bus drivers, he shares his thoughts on the president-elect.

    "Syrians are waiting to see what will happen," he says. "We like the American people, but when people here feel the pressure of the US government's policies, they start to hate America."

    He sits down on a weather-worn couch on the sidewalk and pulls a 10-lira ($0.20) coin from his pocket.

    "You see this?" he asks, pointing to one face of the coin, embossed with the falcon of the Syrian republic. "This is Bush." He turns the coin over and points to the other side. "And this is Obama."

    "Two faces, same coin," he says. "Obama may change domestic policies in America, but we don't think he will change much in the Middle East."

    It is unclear to most Syrians whether Obama will attempt to reverse the US' worsening relationship with their country.

    Relations have been on the decline since the US pulled its ambassador and imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the then-Lebanese prime minister.

    Unlike his rival John McCain, Obama was notably silent about the US attacks in the country's east, which Syrian officials say killed eight civilians 10 days before the elections.

    Obama has vowed to break the diplomatic silence with America's enemies, but he made little direct mention of Syria during his election campaign other than to condemn the country's alleged support for Hezbollah.

    Israel support

    In search of a younger, hipper crowd closer to the type that campaigned so fervently for Obama in the US, I headed to the downtown districts.

    Iyad Jazaarly, 25, a theatre director, is spending his Friday afternoon at a popular café in a cobble-stoned alley in Suq Saruja.

    "The problem isn't about who arrives in the White House; the problem is the White House itself," Jazaarly says.
    "Whenever a new president comes to the White House, America doesn't change its policy toward the Arabs," he says.

    "And the presidents always support Israel."

    The café owner chimes in.

    "No person can become the president of America without submitting to the Israeli lobby," says Firas Abdul Rizaaq, 34.

    "Obama supports Israel just like every other American president."

    It is here that Obama has failed the most basic litmus test of ordinary Syrians, who tend to place more weight on US relations with Israel than with their own country. 

    Many of Obama's advisors support talks between Syria and Israel that could see the Golan Heights - seized by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War - returned to Syria.

    The incoming US president also says he will prioritise a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    However, his promise to increase economic and military assistance to Tel Aviv does not seem to be winning him many friends here, where people regularly and fervently condemn what they say is Israel's unjust occupation of Palestinian lands.

    Nothing will change

    To get a sense of what Syria's more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees think of Obama, Al Jazeera visited Yarmouk, a refugee camp first established in 1967 that has turned into a rowdy suburb of cement block apartment buildings.

    In one house, people swill araq, Syria's licorice-flavoured firewater, and talk about music and politics.

    When Obama's victory comes up, Mazen Rabia, a Syrian-born Palestinian playwright, scoffs.

    Obama may soon be president, but the Palestinians in Syria and other Arab countries will not be going home any time soon, he says.

    "For me, nothing will change. I will still be drinking araq, I will still be stuck in Syria, and America will still be a problem."

    "The Americans will still be financing the separation wall in Palestine," he adds.

    Damascus' newer refugee population, made up of some one million Iraqis, is just as cynical.

    "Obama is a politician and politicians say nice things," says an Iraqi sandwich seller on Iraq Street in Damascus' Seyyida Zainab suburb. "But we still don't know what he is going to do."

    "It's good that he is black though," he adds in an unusual note of optimism. "At least he won't be racist."

    'A symbolic position'

    Down the street, I meet with Rassam al-Mawaani in a hotel garden. Al-Mawaani is the cultural advisor of the Sadrist movement, led by the anti-US cleric who commands the allegiance of thousands of poor Iraqi Shia and many refugees in Damascus.

    "We believe that the position of the US president is a symbolic one," he says.

    "The conflict between American political parties isn't around what the aims of US foreign policy should be. The conflict is around the method of implementing the American political agenda, which is controlled by corporations and the Zionist lobby."

    Americans might be excited about Obama's promises to change America's image in the world, but al-Mawaani, like nearly everyone else in Damascus, is not buying it.

    "America didn't come all this way to end a dictatorship and leave," Al-Mawaani says of US military presence in Iraq.

    "There are many financial and political interests at stake. Obama isn't going to change that. He is just a new face."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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