By Roula Khalaf and Anna Fifield–
Not long ago, the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad was shunned as a dangerous pariah, a troublemaker that meddles in Iraq, provokes unrest in Lebanon and cheers at the Middle Eastern misfortunes of the west.
The Syrian president, who inherited his rule from his father in 2000, was ostracised even by Arab friends infuriated by his tightening alliance with Iran and by the repeated promises of co-operation that were never kept.
These days, however, it must feel like the “Bashar Spring” in Damascus. The 43-year-old Mr Assad is enjoying a rare run of fortunate events that are easing the international pressures and offering a chance at rehabilitation.
With a new US administration determined to turn the page on the policies of George W. Bush and transform past enemies into friends, Syria has emerged as a test case for American policy. If Washington can find a way of convincing Damascus to work with it rather than against it, the bigger goal of defusing other tensions in the region would gain a significant boost.
With its ties to militant groups across the region such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and its resulting ability to undermine western interests, a more co-operative Assad regime could facilitate policy towards Iran as well as the pursuit of Middle East peace.
Although it remains far from clear that the Assad regime will change its behaviour, Washington has already changed its tone. US officials now travel to Damascus for talks; they even show up at the national day celebrations of the Syrian embassy in Washington. European and Arab governments have also been warming to Mr Assad, hoping that engagement will prise him away from the clutches of Tehran.
Mr Assad’s luck has recently also been good on other fronts. An alliance of the Syrian exiled opposition that had grouped Islamists and a leading regime defector has broken up, further weakening a feeble dissident movement.
Most recently, four pro-Syrian former Lebanese generals jailed for the 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and Syrian opponent, were released amid a lack of evidence. Though a United Nations investigation into an assassination that was widely blamed on Damascus continues, the release of the four men was a boon to Syria, which had denied involvement and had sought to bring an end to the probe.
“It’s a remarkable run for a guy who had his back against the wall,” remarks Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Syrian officials are basking in self-confidence as a result. Imad Moustapha, the country’s ambassador in Washington, told the Middle East Institute this month that he had been “overjoyed” by Mr Obama’s election, describing the change in Washington’s attitude towards Syria as dramatic. “Now, instead of pointing fingers at us, they are telling us how can we work together to address this and that issue. The tone is friendly and respectful and the style is different,” he said. Syria, he added, was not changing. Instead, it was the US that had recognised its mistakes and was seeking to correct them.
“The Syrians now believe they are the centre of the Middle East,” quips Andrew Tabler, a political analyst who spent years in Syria. “They think nothing can be done without them.”
Yet Damascus should not rejoice yet. A better relationship with the west largely depends on how the Syrian ruler plays his hand. US officials fear that Syria might be overestimating the change of tone of the Obama administration and misreading its intentions. To stress that point, a day after a senior US envoy was in Damascus at the end of last week, the administration renewed its unilateral sanctions against Syria, citing the regime’s support for terrorism and weapons trade.
“We want to see a change in Syria’s outlook, away from being a spoiler and more towards being a constructive problem solver, at least willing to deal with some of the problems in the region,” says one US official. “It is not that we want them to cut off relations with Iran but to recognise that the west can offer things that Iran can’t – like economic prosperity and peace with Israel.”
A country of 20m people, with a weak economy and dwindling oil reserves, Syria has always been a hardline state in the region, determined to punch above its weight. Under the late Hafez al-Assad, it was adept at manoeuvring diplomatically and shifting strategies when the international environment demanded it – most famously during the first Gulf war in 1990 when Syria joined the US-led alliance to free Kuwait.
This ability, however, appeared to have been lost when the younger Mr Assad took over the presidency on the death of his father. Tall and given to grandstanding – much to the annoyance of older Arab leaders – the trained eye-doctor was ill prepared to rule over the Baathist regime, concentrated in the hands of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam dominant in the Latakia region on the Mediterranean, and underpinned by a web of competing and corrupt intelligence agencies. It was, after all, his brother Bassil who had been groomed to take over but was killed in a car accident.
Fearing that he would be next on the list of US targets for regime change following the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Mr Assad drew closer to Tehran, backed Iraqi insurgents and used Syria’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas to undermine western interests in the region.
The cost has been high, and not always obvious. Mr Assad consolidated his power internally, sidelining the old guard and promoting trusted members of his family. He has kept a firm grip on society, repressing pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.
Damascus also has taken blows: in 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site in the Syrian desert, which the US said had been built in collaboration with North Korea. A top military aide to Mr Assad was assassinated last August; and Imad Moughniye, Hizbollah’s military chief, was killed a year earlier by a bomb in Damascus. Both killings remain unexplained, with Syria never directly accusing Israel.
Economically too, Damascus has suffered. A trade association agreement under negotiation with the European Union has been frozen since 2005. The killing of Hariri turned large parts of Lebanon against Damascus, forcing it to withdraw its troops – the end of a nearly 30-year presence from which the military establishment had profited financially.
Despite the setbacks, Syria considers that it has been vindicated, with its diplomatic clout enhanced by the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and the decline of American influence in the Middle East. Iran’s authority in the region has been boosted. In Lebanon, meanwhile, Syria’s allies, including Hizbollah, remain powerful and could win next month’s legislative elections. “The Syrians are convinced that by resisting the [last] US administration they survived, they won,” says a western diplomat in Damascus.
The self-satisfaction could lead to Syria holding out for US concessions but giving little in return. “In absolute terms, Assad is in a weak position, in the region and economically, but not in relative terms,” says Mr Alterman of the CSIS. Damascus, he argues, has no intention of changing its foreign policy, but even a modest correction could give it a different relationship with the US. America’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, scheduled to be completed in two years, could represent an opportunity if Syria is willing to crack down on insurgents who pass through its territory – a big US complaint. Arab officials who have dealt with the regime say engagement with Damascus has a better chance of success if the economic benefits are made clear.
While the US explores prospects of improved bilateral relations, it is also making clear that it would be willing to mediate in peace talks with Israel in order to secure Syria’s main demand – a return of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967. George Mitchell, the US envoy for Middle East peace, recently added to his team an expert in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
Quick progress is, however, expected by no one. A day before the US officials arrived in Damascus last week, Mr Assad hosted Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president. “We have strategic ties…which…serve the stability and strength of this region,” Mr Assad insisted. “Our duty is to strengthen these kinds of ties.”
“I think that we will see a very gradual, cautious, sceptical approach on both sides,” says Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Syrian officials, he argues, are fully aware that although Mr Obama’s election might have been revolutionary, his Middle East policy may not be.
The fate of US engagement, moreover, will be closely linked to that of Syrian-Israeli talks. The Israeli defence establishment sees the strategic benefit of peace with Syria but Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new rightwing prime minister, appears to have little enthusiasm for reviving negotiations. Analysts predict that talks will eventually start, though they will prove hard to conclude with a peace deal.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, says that while confidence-building between Washington and Damascus is important, there will come a stage when concrete actions are required. “Unless the Golan Heights issue is given a high priority on Obama’s regional agenda, sooner or later we will be back to square one. There has to be something concrete related to the peace talks.”
One US official meanwhile outlines a bewildering list of conditions for the success of American engagement. “I think that in the next year, if Syria is in negotiations with Israel, if there is a stable government in Lebanon, if there are better relations between Syria and Iraq, if the Palestinians are working towards elections, the conditions for Syria to play a more positive regional role will be largely in place,” he says.
The Bashar Spring could prove enduring. But it does well to remember the fate of the so-called Damascus Spring, the flourishing of democratic debate that Mr Assad tolerated when he took over – but then suppressed.