Syria-U.S. Science Diplomacy Yields Agreement to Seek Collaboration in Water, Energy, Agriculture and Other Fields

Syria and the United States will explore cooperation in health, agriculture, scholar exchanges, and other areas as the result of four days of meetings in Damascus between high-level science, medical and higher education officials from the two countries.

A 10-member U.S. delegation met for more than an hour with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with discussion focused on the central role of science and education in meeting a nation's economic and social needs. The Americans also joined with some of Syria's most influential leaders in research, education, and government for wide-ranging talks that could help to open a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

Science, Health, and Higher Education leaders from Syria and the United States gather in Damascus for the first day of meetings earlier this month.

The U.S. delegation was assembled by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC) and included Nobel laureate David Baltimore, the immediate past chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, and two senior AAAS executives. The visit came at a time of new dialogue between the two nations, and both sides characterized the meetings as cordial and constructive.

"Successful cooperation between the United States and Syria in science, education, and health care will serve to help break through political barriers and negative perceptions and serve as a cushion in times of political disagreement," said U.S. delegation leader Pamela Scholl, president of the Dr. Scholl Foundation and a member of the Center's Board of Trustees.


Wafic Saïd

"I was a little apprehensive before the U.S.-Syria dialogue got underway," said delegation sponsor Wafic Saïd, a Syrian-born businessman and lead benefactor of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. "We had essentially brokered a blind date between two highly distinguished delegations and we had no idea whether they would take to each other. As it turned out, both sides worked together with mutual respect and genuine enthusiasm and we were able to identify concrete opportunities for future collaboration of benefit to both countries. I look forward to seeing the understanding we have arrived at deepen and broaden as we build our collaboration in practical ways."

U.S. delegation member Theodore Kattouf, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates, described Syria's reception as "constructive and warm," an indication of the nation's "readiness to upgrade relations with the United States at various levels, following the icy relations during the Bush Administration."

Syrian-U.S. relations in recent years have been strained by disagreement over a range of Middle East issues. Though planning for the science and health meetings had been underway for months, the delegation's visit coincided with steps by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to explore a possible thaw with Syria. Obama has expressed an openness to improved relations with Syria and other nations in the region, and in early March U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent two top State Department officials to meet with Syrians.

"Now more than ever, it is important to reach across national boundaries and identify the issues that unite us," said CSPC President David Abshire, the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, as the delegation arrived in Damascus. "I applaud Secretary Clinton's call for new initiatives to advance the cause of peace throughout the region, and our exchange may help that effort."

The delegation's visit to Syria also reflects the growing ambition of independent diplomacy efforts by researchers and research organizations in the United States who are making science-based overtures to Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and other nations where governmental relations are strained or nonexistent. The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy was founded last year to serve as a hub for such efforts, with the goal of bringing the researchers and their institutions, the foreign policy community, and policymakers together in the effort.

Vaughan Turekian, the Center's director, has described science diplomacy as a way to build communication and trust between nations in a politically neutral context. "The visit to Syria reinforced one of the central motivations behind the creation of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy—namely, that science cooperation provides a valuable thread in the fabric of societal relationships," said Turekian, who also is AAAS's chief international officer.

The delegation arrived in Damascus on 9 March, and after a reception that night, the Americans and their Syrian counterparts spent three full days moving between talks and visits to research and education centers and cultural and historic sites. The Syrian delegation, headed by Dr. Fawaz Akhras, medical director of Cardiac and Medical Healthcare Services at Cromwell Hospital in London, made presentations on the challenges facing Syria's health care and higher education systems and its plans for science- and technology-driven innovation.

On Wednesday, the Syrians and Americans broke into three working groups to cover issues in science, health and higher education. Each group made recommendations that were adopted by the full delegations, including:

Science:

  • Focus on joint activities in areas such as water, energy, and agriculture, where both countries have mutual interest and established research capacity;
  • Increase the number of Americans involved in international science activities that engage Syrian scientists, such as the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and other agricultural programs;
  • Place a Syrian fellow in AAAS's Center for Science Diplomacy who could help organize joint activities, put together a program at the AAAS Annual Meeting, and interact with the broader U.S. science, technology, and innovation community; and
  • Encourage young American business leaders and entrepreneurs to visit Syria.

Health:

  • The two nations could establish a Syrian-American institute for advanced medical practices that could, in part, help Syria build training and development activities for medical technicians and nurses; and
  • The United States could assist Syria in achieving accreditation for some of its hospitals.

The health group also discussed the ways in which export control rules and bottlenecks in the U.S. visa system are limiting effective interaction between the two countries on medical research and training issues.

Higher Education

  • Focus on arid climate and other issues of mutual research and teaching interest;
  • Increase student and faculty exchanges, working with a U.S. organization to coordinate the exchanges. Encourage short term faculty exchanges lasting four to six weeks. Also, look into how exchange program are limited by the U.S. visa system;
  • Look into joint supervision of Ph.D. candidates and increase virtual interaction; and
  • Establish department-to-department partnerships so that Syrians can increase access to research facilities while maintaining their teaching activities in Syria.

Turekian said that, in the Thursday meeting between Assad and the Americans, the Syrian president spoke in detail of two top priorities: water use and conservation in agriculture and building an integrated system of innovation. Turekian described the meeting as "very productive."

Members of the both delegations heard a discussion of Syrian antiquities. From left: Matthew Purushotham (with camera) and Daniel Mahaffee of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress; John Vaughn of the Association of American Universities; Wael Khoury, head of cardiology at Marymount Hospital in Cleveland; U.S. delegation leader Pamela Scholl, president of the Dr. Scholl Foundation; Vaughan Turekian, AAAS chief international officer; David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and immediate past chair of the AAAS Board of Directors; and Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. (The guide and man at far left are unidentified.)

The Americans also visited Assad University Hospital and the Higher Institute of Languages at Damascus University.

"Throughout the visit, we were welcomed with enthusiasm and warmth," Turekian said. "Though challenges remain, both sides acknowledged that the tensions have gone on for far too long. The visit was an important demonstration of the potential for better relations."

"Looking forward, it is probably inevitable that the Syrian-U.S. science relationship will continue to be influenced to some extent by the regional political environment," said Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and former science adviser to U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. "However, we could not have had a more congenial reception than we did in Syria and I think the chances of beginning some cooperation are promising. In the near term, joint workshops on specific topics would be an easy and concrete way to build on the success of the Damascus meetings and to get specialists from the two countries acquainted with each other and have them begin discussing possible joint projects."

Kattouf, currently president of Amideast Inc., added: "Syrian health officials have made great progress in improving public health, thereby greatly extending life expectancy and achieving a relatively low level of infant mortality. However, Syria could do much more in the fields of basic and applied research. Continued engagement between U.S. and Syrian medical, educational, and science officials will contribute to providing an environment conducive to this goal, in part by keeping Syria's top talent at home."

The visit was hosted by Damascus University, and university President Wael Mualla sat on the Syrian delegation. The British Syrian Society, with Akhras serving as co-chair, facilitated the meeting.

The U.S. delegation's visit was conceived last fall during discussions between Saïd, who sits on the board of directors for the British Syrian Society, Abshire, and Dr. Hrant Semerjian, a prominent Washington, D.C., physician. The Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the Center for Science Diplomacy also helped organize the meetings.