.صلاح الدين ترك المفاتيح في دمشق
During a conversation with a shopkeeper, a carpet-buyer, a couple from Norway, and myself – I was introduced to this saying. It took me a minute to understand this old Syrian joke, but it became very telling about the sociopolitical attitude of the Syrian people, and their hope for the future.
Salahadin, the great Syrian warrior, statesman, and Arab hero, was one of the last uniters of the Arab world. Since then, the Arab world has been united and fractured repeatedly – through war, diplomatic dispute, colonialism – and for the past thirty to forty years, Syria has been excluded (or has refused to include itself) in developing a lasting discussion about the future of the region. Amongst other Arab nations, it has been considered rogue, difficult, and unwilling to cooperate. In the international arena, Syria is considered a state sponsor of terror, economically and politically stagnant and stubborn.
That changed some when Obama stated early in his presidency that for any hopes of sustainable peace and progress in the Middle East, America must move towards diplomatic re-engagement with Syria. Because Syria, while it may not have the political clout of its neighbors Jordan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, does play a significant role in the region. Its continuing presence in Lebanon will determine the future of the stabilization of Lebanon and the outcome of its new government. Syrian claims over the Golan Heights are a precondition to peace with Israel. There is a significant relationship between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria, not to mention Syria and Iran’s significant relationship. The road to lasting Middle Eastern peace, it seems, runs straight through Damascus.
And that is why I am here, working in a small way on that effort. The role of Public Diplomacy is to reach the Syrian public and to change their attitude towards the United States, a crucial first step into changing the political attitude between Syria and America. It is an incredible time and opportunity to be a part of this change, incorporating the ideals and initiatives in Obama’s Cairo Speech, and I cannot begin to explain how much I am learning here, and how excited I am to be a part of this new beginning.