Has Syria come in from the cold?

July 14, 2008

assad.jpgThe European-Mediterranean summit in Paris might have produced grand projects ranging from cleaning up the Mediterranean sea to using North Africa’s sunshine to generate power. But that is is not what it will be remembered for.

It will be remembered for the glorious welcome it bestowed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who until yesterday was persona non-grata in the West, an autocrat leading a pariah regime, which many believe orchestrated the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.  

Assad was the star of the show, which sealed a new detente between Syria and Europe, with the Syrian and Israeli leaders sitting at the same table for the first time.

So what happened? And why are things finally looking up for Bashar? What lay behind this sudden turn in his fortunes? Are Bashar and his government really off the hook?       Is it all forgotten because Assad relaunched indirect peace talks with Israel and gave his blessing to a Qatari-mediated accord that ended Lebanon’s political crisis, allowing the election of a Lebanese president? After all, the new government was in Syria’s favour.

Or is it as some experts commented because Assad proved once again, like his father late President Hafez al-Assad before him, that there won’t be any stability or peace in the region without Syria, that Syria —  with its strong links with Iran, Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Islamist Hamas movement and a string of hired guns — still  calls the shots and could act as a spoiler if ostracised? 

Some observers even speculated that there was collusion in Damascus for the killing in February of Imad Moughniyah, the chief of Hezbollah’s security network and an agent of Iran who topped the U.S. most wanted list for 25 years.

Those familiar with Syrian techniques joked that Syria keeps resorting to the same old get-out-of-jail-free-cards and dodges to get out of crises with the West.

In the 1980’s,  for example, Syria was shunned by the West for its alleged links to an El Al bombing plot in London, its alliance with Iran against Arabs in the Iran-Iraq war, and because of its support for Shi’ite Islamist bombings of U.S. and French targets in Lebanon.

Yet it regained its place in the Arab fold —  and the good grace of Washington — by joining the U.S.-led alliance that ended Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Syria was well rewarded – the US gave it a free hand to operate in Lebanon and Arab states gave aid and investment.  
assad-and-wife-asma.jpgSyrian journalists accompanying Assad were delighted by their leader’s confident performance at the Elysee Palace. He shared a table with Sarkozy, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and the Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Yet most journalists directed their questions to Assad.

Heading out of the palace one Syrian journalist joked with a colleague: “Our Lebanese friends will be upset because the story is no longer the Hariri tribunal”.

Assad and his glamorous wife Asma savoured their moment of glory. Both were invited to stay on for Bastille Day.

“Bashar is here to stay…It is a very different situation. We saw lots of self-assurance and self-confidence. He was conducting himself with a statesman-like appearance,” one analyst said.  

Is Syria back in the fold or is full rehabilitation a long way off? Has Assad outsmarted Syria’s critics?


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oh! Syria!the world is really changeing!and what welcoming!
They want it back on the field!How qickly you can clean an image!
I would like to see the comment of John M,on this one!

Posted by Burca Alice Larisa | Report as abusive

I think it was Hafez el Assad who was once nicknamed the “Bismarck of the Middle East”… not in every way a compliment! There was thus speculation when Bashar succeeded him, as he was not the favorite son and hadn’t actually been groomed for power. The last few years do give the impression of a zigzag in Syrian politics, veering from modest international overture to some more hardline behavior, especially where Lebanese sovereignty was concerned. It probably helps that there are now some conditions for a renewed dialogue with Syria… and it took some rather important concessions on the part of the French, who have legitimate axes to grind with Syria, precisely over Lebanon, for the past twenty five years.

As the article suggest, however, all of this is in the present and the question really is how tightly a grip over power Bashar really has, and will his government continue to steer the same course. It does seem on track to eventually complete some negotiations with Israel and could regain all of the Golan Heights… which would be a spectacular achievement if the Syrians could pull this off. However the recent developments in the Middle East have also shown that even formal peace agreements and territorial resitutions between Israel and its neighbors was insufficient to bring peace. Many of the Arab leaders (perhaps the monarchs less so than the various presidents, often ex-military) do have a vested political interest in the conflict lasting indefinitely because it helps justify an authoritarian government… So with Bashar: how would he, and his family, continue to rule Syria if peace actually came?

One supposes, anyway, that such a peace will take very long to build, and perhaps Bashar will be able to indeed gain strength from his recent successes… giving him plety more time for more zigzags…

Posted by Paul Vallet | Report as abusive

It’s about time.
There is always speculation and careerist politicians who try to sell rhetoric and political gobbledegook and distortion of fact, meanwhile the situation in the middle east gets worse and worse. I have spent a long time in the region and have seen and experienced the conflict firsthand.

A peace process in the region needs to include everyone, Syria included. The current US administration’s – and some in Europe- attempts at isolating countries in blacklists and keeping them out of any plan for peaceful resolution in the middle east was and still is extremely foolish. The results of this clueless policy speak for themselves.

Nobody is going to excuse Syria out of its responsibilities, there is a lot in and about this country that needs reform and change both in government and policy, but that will not happen with a responding policy of errant and arrogant hostility and a bias towards an enemy that illegally occupies a sovereign part of Syrian territory as acknowledged by the UN and owns nuclear weapons. It is naive to the point of being imbecile to think that Syria would be amenable or cooperative under these conditions to US-led efforts for peace.

If under the umbrella of this summit all its participants can meet on equal footing and discuss their differences and have them settled fairly by impartial arbitration, Assad and Syria have no reason to maintain their covert operations and relations in the region which they consider their first line of defense against an enemy occupying Syrian soil, armed with nuclear weapons and is supported by a superpower that is actively hostile towards them. I hope this brings about the change of attitude needed to help bring this part of the world at least partial stability and the groundwork needed to begin fair dialogue and reach lasting and fair peace somewhere down the road.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

In fairness it should be said that Syria had done a magnificent job at shooting itself in the foot since 2005. It had more or less established its controlling presence in Lebanon and was in a good position to continue to arm Hezbollah, applying constant military pressure on Israel. This was the legacy of Hafez el Assad, who managed to be one of the only neighbors not to sign the peacer with Israel but also managed to cultivate surprisingly cordial relations with the West, especially when he joined the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. As for the collapse of the Saddam regime in Iraq in 2003, it was a windfall from Syria which was rid of a dangerous regional rival, that is until the flow of Iraqi refugees started to destabilise the delicate fabric in Syrian society.

The assassination of Rafic Hariri completely changed attitudes towards Syria. One can characterise this as overreaction, but it did open the eyes towards the product of this indirectly pro-Syrian realpolitik: that Lebanon was allowed to be turned slowly into a Syrian colony. The fact that shortly after Israel was defeated by Hezbollah in the war of the summer 2006 has not made Syria look any better to the Western supporters of an independent Lebanon. There too one might decry excessive Western paranoia, but it is also hard to deny the reality that Bachar’s foreign policy did create confusion and concern, and that a hostile reaction to this was not altogether unsurprising.

One does have the impression that a certain amount of pressure and firmness has had some effectiveness after all, and that it is the conscience of the risks of isolation which have perhaps steered Bachar to a more conciliatory stance. The risk is of course that Syrian presence in Lebanon is going to be reestablished in another form, with the blessing of the Doha agreement (like the Taif agreement in 1991) and the international community, keen to be able to restore some sort of dialogue. For the price of Syria “coming in from the cold”, what is reasonable payment, and what might be excessive? The dilemma here, in responding to Syrian overtures, is how to be sufficiently realistic about the need to agree, while retaining a certain amount of confidence about fundamentals that can’t be compromised. OIn this as in other areas the next US administration is going to have an absolutely nightmarish and thankless job…

Posted by Paul Vallet | Report as abusive

Oh please, the UN says a lot of things that aren’t always well-founded. Neither party is innocent of anything. The difference is that Israel is surrounded by enemies while Syria is not. So you try and think of the type of attitude you would have in that situation, Bill.

While I don’t support the war in Iraq, one of the reasons the US, an ally to most of the nation in the UN and a co-founder of the UN, is stuck in Iraq with little or no help is because the UN is all talk and no action. They don’t really stand by much, because they have become so broad in scope that everything they stand for contradicts some other aspect of what they stand for and in the end they always take the easy road or path of least resistance — ie, zero conflict. If the UN can’t be more proactive, it’s in danger of becoming mediocre at best and obsolete at worst.

I think this is interesting, however, in what it means for Syrian and Iranian relations. Does Syria now have one foot in the West and the other in Iran? Since these are diverging footholds, mostly the fault of Iran’s president and the Ayatolla’s inability to be truly visionary. There will not be stability in the region unless Syria is willing to leave it’s long-time ally, Iran to help force it to listen to reason.

Personally, I only see two reasons Iran might reject the offer to provide enriched uranium. One is because western uranium is filthy to them and they refuse to accept anything from infidels (a fundamentalists’ misinterpretation of the Quran). The other is that they are building nuclear weapons or they want the option to do so at a future date. I think in this Israel has a very real and legitimate concern.

So here’s the situation, I don’t think we can fully trust Syria on anything (and I doubt anyone really does) until they renounce Iran as an ally or somehow get Iran to cooperate. This move could be seen as distancing themselves from Iran for economic ($$) reasons but doesn’t mean they won’t stab everyone in the back once the chance arises.

Still, it would be nice if this fairytale played out well. I just think that to remain optimistic about these events and hope that Syria is actually being genuine about something would be a stretch.

As for the Golan Heights, I think history remembers that Israel was attacked and they seized the area so that they could protect themselves. Of course others seem to remember history differently, especially when they like to go back on their word about the legitimacy of Israel as a state as constituted by the UN with full rights to protect itself when threatened.

Posted by lucid_green | Report as abusive

”Syrians have paid dearly for their country’s stability. Many still remember the dark days of the great repression, i.e. the low-intensity civil war of 1978-82, culminating in the bloodletting at Hama. When President Asad departs the scene, there will be political jockeying for power, but not necessarily violent confrontations or tanks in the streets, as occurred in 1984. The old leaders may be entrenched and set in their own undemocratic ways, but adventurers they are not. All along the issue of succession in Damascus has been greatly exaggerated, not only in the United States and Israel, but also in Syria and the Arab world. For this state of affairs, the Syrians have themselves to blame, and it is unfortunate that President Asad did not settle this issue or contain it early on. The transition in Syria after Asad may be precarious; however, one can expect various forces in the power structure and interest groups in the society to cooperate to ensure that the transition is violence-free.”

Posted by Burca Alice Larisa | Report as abusive

The reappearance of Bashar Assad in Europe under the auspices of President Sarkozy, after a long period isolation, is considered by Walid Jumbalat as a treacherous french demarche against the Syrian opposition in Lebanon.

Bashar Assad is one of the winner of this gathering, appearing together with all the other Arab countries, after a long period of isolation. But the Egyptian president Mubarak didn’t even give a look at Assad and some time later they are seen together, in a TV shot with president Sarkozy… And Syria’s Bashar Assad, two meter away from Israeli PM Olmert refuse to see PM Olmert. Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi didn’t like the whole idea and stayed home. This is a shortcut to the ’sociology’ of this gathering.

In Israel we know what is the real ‘cash value’ of talks, ceasefire and signed treaties in the Middle East. With the Hamas there is a ceasefire broken every day. With Syria there are talks, but via Syria there is the gigantic rearmament of the Hezbollah. With the Hezbollah there is the prisoners swap this week, but the Israeli press predict that after the swap Hezbollah is ready to attack: according to their accounting they owe Israel a revenge for Mugniyah’s dead.

The call of President Sarkozy for a free nuclear middle east (Mediterranean is not possible: France has nuclear weapons,,) is at most not serious. The principal addressee is Iran and is not a part of the Mediterranean but her missiles and their firing range grant her a threatening participating ticket on the presidency stage.

Bashar Assad has to decide with whom he wants to live, with Europe or with Iran. Both alternative are bad. With Europe his internal opposition will claim a more democratic regime and with Iran he returns to his isolation.

Posted by Shlomo Korzac | Report as abusive

Reuters: “Is Syria back in the fold or is full rehabilitation a long way off? Has Assad outsmarted Syria’s critics?”

What was it Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Bloody Mary once cooed, Mr. & Mrs. Reader? Oh yes…

“Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?

It’s good idea, you like?”

It’s as I’ve been mentioning for some few weeks now, the middle road (some say the “high road”) is so much more appealing to the mainstream…especially as the election of a new U.S. president gets closer and closer.

This road is cyclically traveled every four years.

Syria moves toward better relations with Israel; likewise Palestine; likewise Egypt–and vice-versa. Three of the four depend heavily on the U.S. for financial support in one way or the other, and want to keep the money flowing in.

The U.S. talks about drawing down military forces in Iraq…and shifting emphasis toward Afghanistan and “going after” those elusive bad guys, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Iraq talks about drawing down U.S. military forces. Messrs. Obama and McCain talk about ignoring the Afghan-Pakistani frontier in the U.S. quest for said bad guys.

Then there is U.S. domestic happy talk. Taxes won’t be raised. Taxes will be cut. The annual spending deficit will be erased. Dependence on oil will be eliminated. The recession is cyclic and will be gone before you know it. Inflation is climbing, but that won’t last. Mortgage money will be available to all who can qualify. Everybody will have access to medical care. These are just a few of the domestic U.S. election slogans that go hand-in-hand with everybody liking everybody more and more as the election approaches.

All this happy talk, e.g., Syria, Iraq, the U.S. et al, makes the independent (mainstream) swing voters in the U.S. feel better about themselves, the sins of a polarized congress, the sins of the outgoing president, the sins of the future president…and even the sins of the supreme court.

The media hypes all the aforesaid happy talk coming out of Syria, Israel, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, the U.S. et al.

November 4th looms nearer. January 20th at noon is the beginning of a “new era”. The first 100 days of a new U.S. administration and lots of U.S. congressional legislation come immediately on the heels of a patriotic inaugural celebration.

It’s in-with-the-new and out-with-the-old.

Happy talk and more happy talk (basically, all that we’ve been hearing out of the U.S. media for the past couple of U.S. presidential administrations…after all…it’s “wartime” you know and we mustn’t depress our audience…stiff upper lip and all that sort of rot, don’t you know).

OK Jack

P.S. I would love to see great things happen, Mr. & Mrs. Reader. So, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a cynic. However, I’m both a realist and an optimist. If there is one thing I’ve learned over a lifetime, it is that not only can one not put all one’s eggs in one basket…but one cannot get all one’s news from U.S. sources. That’s why I pay close attention to Reuters (and other “foreign” sources) and to a news analysis source called Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Staying informed takes a lot of time. Sifting through the rhetoric takes even more time.

Posted by OK Jack | Report as abusive

oh my god!i am impresed with what OK JACK said!it’s fantastic that someone noticed this about reuters!

Posted by Burca Alice Larisa | Report as abusive