The big news is that US President Barack Obama has renewed sanctions on Syria, imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2004. The order, numbered 13,338, was due to expire on May 10.

The renewal came after Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro visited Syria, followed immediately by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua'allem met with the official US envoys, who were making their second trip to Syria since Obama came to office last January, and said that the talks had been "constructive."

During a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, President Bashar Al Assad defended Syria's alliance with Tehran as "strategic", saying that the common vision shared since 2005 was "correct." Syria had no intention of abandoning its allies, or changing its policies vis-à-vis the resistance in Lebanon or Palestine, the Syrian president said.

US-based Syria expert Joshua Landis said at the time, "This is the clearest sign that negotiations between Damascus and Washington are going, if not badly, at least slowly despite statements by both sides that progress is being made."

Others also analysed Feltman's visit and the renewal of sanctions and said these developments served the interests of the anti-Syrian March 14 Coalition in Lebanon. Some pointed to a visit by Israeli officials to Washington, where they had extensive talks with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, while sanctions were being renewed on Damascus.

Let's not get carried away here purely for the sake of creating media excitement. Renewal of sanctions is a routine process that was expected, and does not affect the Syrian-US commitment to continue searching for common ground in the Middle East.

Anybody expecting the US to immediately waive sanctions on Syria was being unrealistic. Even if he wished to do so, Obama could not have done that, since once sanctions are embedded into US law, it becomes very difficult to do away with them, without good reason.

The Syrians had no illusions in this regard. A 'best-case scenario' would have been for Obama to reduce the economic sanctions on Syria - which could still happen - in anticipation of their eventual removal after a peace treaty is signed between Syria and Israel.

Sanctions will not be dropped altogether so long as Syria remains committed to supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and the US refuses to talk to both groups. But once dialogue has commenced between these groups and Obama, work on reducing the sanctions could follow.

America's expectations of Syria, after all, have not changed. What has changed is the manner in which they were conveyed to the Syrians. Previously, Bush had only diktats, rather than dialogue, for those with whom he disagreed. But Obama was willing to talk and hear the Syrians out. Unlike Bush, he is seemingly disinterested in ending Syria's relationship with Iran, but would rather invest in it in the hope of moderating Iran's behaviour.

Syria has offered to play the go-between in the Iranian-US relationship, and to mediate on the nuclear issue. According to some observers, Obama might soon engage in dialogue with Hezbollah, if the latter emerges victorious in the upcoming Lebanese elections.

As the UK has already done this, nothing prevents the US from following suit. Since Obama came to power last January, Hezbollah and Hamas have expressed their desire for talks with the US - no doubt at the urging of Syria.

Having said that, Obama appreciates the fact that Syria helped hammer out the Doha Agreement, which resolved the presidential dilemma in Lebanon. He also realises that it was Syria that got Hamas to go to Cairo after the latest war on Gaza, to attempt rapprochement with Fatah. On Iraq, Syria has continued to help control the border.

Syria could also help fill a vacuum created by the exodus of US troops from towns and cities in the summer. It has sent an ambassador to Baghdad, and last month sent its prime minister to Iraq to boost Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's standing.

The US is yet to name an ambassador to Damascus. It is also yet to pressure the Israeli government to abandon its hard-line policies. If anything concrete is to be achieved, the Golan Heights issue has to be placed high on the US agenda, and Obama must show willingness to sponsor serious peace talks involving all parties.

Just as the US has its conditions, so does Syria. Only when both parties meet halfway will the reduction of sanctions become possible. The routine renewal of sanctions does not mean, however, that bilateral relations have hit rock bottom between Damascus and Washington. It just means that it will take time - and more dialogue - to repair all the damage done by the Bush Administration.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.