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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri walks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus on the weekend. The leaders agreed to seek ways to improve relations between their two countries. Sana/Reuters
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri walks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus on the weekend. The leaders agreed to seek ways to improve relations between their two countries. Sana/Reuters

Springtime for Syria Add to ...

Long considered an international pariah for its friendship with Iran, its support of radical organizations and its poor human-rights record, it appears that Syria under Bashar al-Assad is being brought in from the cold.

In recent weeks, the King of Saudi Arabia, the President of France and the prime ministers of Turkey and Spain all have beaten a path to Mr. al-Assad's door - this after half a decade of pointedly ostracizing him.

"It was nonsense to try to isolate Syria," says the new French ambassador to Damascus, Eric Chevallier. "It was not feasible, and ended up being counterproductive."

These countries now argue that Syria is integral to resolving several of the region's conflicts - civil strife in Lebanon and Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its own confrontation with Israel.

It's not that Syria can be the peacemaker in all these cases, but it can be the troublemaker, unless it's encouraged otherwise.

Each visitor to Damascus brings its own encouragement: the prospect of substantial foreign investment from Saudi Arabia; open borders with Turkey; the signing of a long-delayed association agreement with the European Union.

The EU agreement was initialled by both sides in 2004, but was put on hold amid accusations of Syrian responsibility for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syria, once eager to have the agreement, now coolly says it will "study all the details" before deciding if it will sign, a good indication of how confident the al-Assad regime feels these days.

Of all the overtures, Damascus is especially pleased about the one from Turkey.

Ten years ago, Turkish troops massed on the border as Ankara sought to end Syrian support for Kurdish rebels. As of last month, however, Syrians and Turks can now cross the border without a visa.

"Turkey changed," explained Sami Moubayed, editor of Forward Magazine, a Syrian English-language monthly. "They are opening to the Arab world in general and to us in particular."

Mr. Moubayed, who participated in behind-the-scenes talks with members of the Obama foreign-policy team last year in the United States, added: "We now can say we have more allies in the region than just Iran."

Even previously frosty Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to call on Mr. al-Assad in August, ostensibly restoring long-lost relations between the two countries. A day later, however, the first of a series of massive bombings in Baghdad took place. Iraq recalled its ambassador, prompting Syria to do the same.

Since then Iraq has returned to accusing Syria of giving safe haven to insurgents and doing nothing about their attacks on Baghdad - first the bombings in August, then a similar episode in October, and another again last week. In each case Iraqi ministries were targeted and scores of people killed.

Syrians dismiss the idea that their government had anything to do with them.

"First they [Iraqis]send us 1.2 million refugees, then they expect us to be their policeman," said an exasperated Samir al-Taqi, director of Syria's Orient Center for International Studies.

Dr. al-Taqi says Baghdad should look closer to home for the culprits. "There are forces in Iraq that want to see it turned into a weak federal state," he said. "Syria has no interest in that. We don't want another Lebanon on our border."

While Iraq and the United States continue to point a finger of responsibility at Syria as a haven for Iraqi refugees, there are few in the international community who share the concern, at least not to the point that it hampers their new relations with Damascus.

For the moment, the United States is the most conspicuous exception to the trend to opening new ties. But even President Barack Obama says he wants to normalize relations with Syria and will name an ambassador to Damascus very soon. In July, the Obama administration took the first step, ending some of the sanctions it had imposed in 2003.

One of the chief complaints about Syria has been its alleged responsibility for the Hariri assassination. Syria now seems to have dodged that bullet. The United Nations inquiry into the matter continues - a Canadian prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, is heading it up - but in the words of a Western diplomat, the case has been "back-burnered."

"Had Syria anything to do with the assassination, it would have surfaced by now," Mr. Moubayed says. "Saudi Arabia and France would not have mended fences with Syria" if they still thought Damascus was behind the killing. (The two countries were among Mr. Hariri's greatest supporters.) This past weekend, even Mr. Hariri's son, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, proclaimed a new relationship with Damascus after two days of meetings in the Syrian capital, including three sessions with Mr. al-Assad.

The United States continues to believe Syria is not doing enough to prevent insurgents entering Iraq from Syria. In the absence of tighter controls, U.S. forces have carried out several cross-border raids into Syria.

A raid last fall that reportedly killed eight civilians, however, prompted the al-Assad regime to take action. It announced the closing of the American international school in Damascus and gave U.S. teachers 48 hours to leave town, according to parents of some of the students.

"It was a pretty reprehensible way to retaliate," one diplomat said. "But people got the point."

The arrival of a new U.S. ambassador is expected to help restart peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. Indirect talks, facilitated by Turkey, broke off last December after Israel launched its attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Syria recently said it was willing to resume negotiations, but only if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signals his acceptance of the UN formula of "land for peace" agreed to by his predecessors. To Mr. al-Assad, that means the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 war.

Mr. Netanyahu has declined to do so, stating that the return of the Golan Heights to Syria should be a subject for negotiation.

It appears that when it comes to Syria's confrontation with Israel, Damascus is seen by the outside world less and less as the implacable party. That's likely because Israel's assault on Gaza, its reluctance to fully freeze settlement growth in the West Bank, and even its attack on Lebanon in 2006 have made it easier for some countries to warm up to Syria.

Commenting on the international red carpet that has been rolled out for Damascus, one Western diplomat said it was hoped that Syria also had learned a lesson. "We want Syria to stop playing with the bad guys and start playing with the good guys," he said.

This isn't the attitude of a lot of Syrians, however. Hearing of this remark, an influential Syrian businessman leaned over and said softly: "Playing with the good guys never got us anywhere."

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