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Syrians Ambivalent over Obama Victory

New America Media, News Analysis, Shane Bauer Posted: Nov 07, 2008

Editor's Note: Syrians aren't quite sure what to expect from an Obama presidency, but one thing is certain -- public opinion there will be shaped by his policy toward Israel. NAM contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

DAMASCUS, Syria - In Damascus, the prevailing reaction to Barack Obama's victory as the next president of the United States is markedly ambivalent, if reservedly hopeful. Discussions here about the U.S. elections tend to revolve around the end of the current administration, more than faith in the next.

My grocer summarized the general sentiment in Damascus perfectly: "Inshallah, he will be better than the last guy."

A newspaper seller down the road, Mazen Sikkar, was slightly more optimistic. "Bush really messed things up for us, and for you. Obama must be better than him," he said. "He is going to do some really good things for people inside the United States, but we still don't know how his presidency will affect us in the Middle East.

"We are waiting to see what happens when he builds the foundations of his presidency in the first two to three months, and how he implements everything he has been talking about. And he added: We don't know what his policy is towards Syria, but we like how he talks."

Obama hasn't said much about Syria during his campaign, except to condemn the country's alleged support for Hezbollah. Many of his advisors support talks between Syria and Israel that would see the Golan Heights returned to Syria.

But no matter what Obama's policy toward Syria, or even Iraq, public opinion here and across the Middle East is heavily dependant on one thing: his policy towards Israel.

"He is behind Israel," said Sikkar. "He supports them and says he will fight for them. Maybe he just said that to get elected, but we will see what happens."

Few here are very hopeful that Obama will have a different approach when it comes to Israel. Here, people tend to believe that American presidents are beholden to the Israeli lobby, and that no president of the United States will change its policy towards the country.

Obama has said that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a "key diplomatic priority," but most of the commitments he has made to Israel don't veer from the path of support followed by former presidents.

"I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security," Obama said in a speech at a 2008 AIPAC policy conference.

Obama has promised to enhance cooperation on Israel's missile defense system, something that makes Israel's neighbors uneasy, and has said he will increase economic and military assistance to Israel.

Even so, the cynical tone of the Syrian press in the lead up to the elections ("Who's the least bad?" asked the headline of one front-page editorial) has changed to one eager for a new relationship with the United States.

"Syria's hand is extended for peace, cooperation, and the foundation (of a new relationship) with America," said today's editorial in the official al-Thawra newspaper. "We have no reservations about dialogueNow, we are waiting for the hand of president Barack Obama."

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