Has Syria come in from the cold?
The 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.
Syrian 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?