In the Muslim world, men take pride in their first born baby boy and 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 have been effectionaly been calling 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 good news coming in from Washington on November 5: “Barack Obama becomes 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,” Hasan Nasrallah is “Abu Hadi,” 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 George W. Bush. Educated Syrians are also amusingly calling him “Abu Hussein” but they have no illussions that the new 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 DC 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 DC and met with think-tanks, newspapers, and loyalists of Barack Obama, discussing ways to move billateral 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: No dialogue with Damascus under Bush has been un-productive for the region and the United States. That is going to change, they said, when Barack Obama reaches the White House. All of them were warmly received by the Syrians, at a popular and official level, including top advisors former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and former National Security Advisor under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter even spoke to students at one of the new private universities in Syria, who applauded stronly whenever he mentioned the name, “President Obama.” Syrians were especially thrilled when Obama refused to praise the US strike on Syria last October, unlike his Republican opponent, John McCain. Syrian dailies and magazines have been running front page news of Obama—almost neglecting McCain—and Syria’s leading English monly Forward ran a cover story asking, “What Michele Obama can learn from Asma al-Assad (the First Lady of Syria).” In another article called “Obama and Syria” the Damascus-based monthly wrote, “If Obama wins and becomes president, expect an updated version of the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. And expect warm relations between Syria and the US.” On November 5, Syrians congratulated one another with SMS messages carrying Obama’s three words, “Yes, we can!”
Officially, Syria is yet to comment on Obama’s victory, and President Bashar al-Assad was often quoted during the presidential race saying that Syria waits to see the positions of either canddiate towards the Middle East once he reaches the White House. Official Syria was worried, after all, at Obama’s strong support for Israel—although it came as no surprise—during his visit to Tel Aviv. 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, its 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 Barack 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. They were this close to suspending diplomatic relations with Baghdad, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki failed to prevent the October strike on Syria—which was launched from Iraqi territory—but did not do that, to keep channels open with the Obama Administration and in order to better deliver seucirty in Iraq. Troops have been reduced from the border—but not withdrawan completely—in objection to the raid, but security coordination with Baghdad (at a ministerial level) remains in-tact, to prevent jihadists from crossing the border into Iraq. If Obama sends off positive signals to Syria, troops can return to the Syrian-Iraqi border. Syira’s newly appointed Ambassador Nawaf al-Fares remains at his job in Baghdad, building bridges with Iraqi Sunnis (he himself hails from a prominent tribe that overlaps between Syria and Iraq). On the day of the Obama victory, President Assad receieved a delegation sent to Damascus by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Scores of Iraqi leaders—Shiite, Kurd, and Sunni—have been coming to Syria for the past 4-years, meeting with Syrian officials who are trying to build bridges between waring 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 Hizbullah and Hamas, 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:
- Appointing a US ambassador to Syria. The post has been vacant since Margaret Scooby was withdrawn when relations plumeted over Lebanon in 2005. That would be accompagnied by greater room to maneuver for Syria’s Ambassador Imad Mustapha, who has always been persona non grata with the Bush Administration, because of his criticism of how outgoing President Bush treated Syria since 2003.
- An end to the anti-Syrian rhetoric coming out of the White House and State Department since 2003. That would automatically reduce the massive anti-Syrian material coming out of the US media.
- Recognition of Syria’s cooperation on border-security with Iraq.
- Cooperation with Syria to deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.
- Lifting—in due course—sanctions that were imposed over Damascus and abolishing the Syrian Accountability Act.
- Willingness to sponsor the 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—because it wants to restore the Golan Heights—and the new White House must acknolwedge that in order to deliver peaceful results in the Middle East. American guarantees and willingness to serve as an honest broker can make these 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.
- Regonizing that no problems can be solved in the Middle East without Syria, vis-à-vis 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.
- Help Syria combat Islamic fundamentalism that has been streaming into its territory from north Lebanon and Iraq. The deadly September 27 attack in Damascus—which left nearly 40 Syrians between dead and injured—should have been a wake-up call for the Americans that unless cooperation is forthcomming from the US, Syria might become a battleground for the extremists, as the case in the 1980s. Intelligence cooperation and technical assistance with the Americans is needed to curb and combat the Islamic threat.
- Apology, compensation, and explanation for the air raid on Syria that left 8 Syrian civilians killed in October 2008.
- 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 lifting the horrible surveilance conducted on Arabs in the US by Homeland Security after 9-11, and give visas to Syrians wanting to study or work in the US.
When that is done, Syria is willing to open both 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.