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John Hughes

Could Syria become a force for peace?

Recent policy changes in Syria offer hope. Damascus could be a wild card in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

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Meanwhile, Syria has been mending its relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah has been irritated by President Assad’s closeness to Iran. The two leaders traveled together to Beirut in July to calm Lebanese leaders’ fears of further Syrian meddling – it has a history of attempted domination there.

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Many Lebanese have charged Syria with involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an act that shook their country and triggered massive protests against Syria. Rafik’s son Saad is now prime minister. He initially accused Damascus of responsibility for his father’s killing. However, in a startling reversal recently, he withdrew the accusation and said Lebanon must await the findings of an international tribunal that has been investigating the murder.

Changes at home

As Assad orchestrates these somewhat byzantine international relationships, much as his father and Syria’s former president, Hafez, did before him, change is afoot at home.

The New York Times reported moves recently to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in mosques, public universities, and charities. An influential Muslim women’s group has been told to scale back teaching of Islamic law. More than 1,000 teachers wearing the traditional Muslim face veil have been transferred to administrative duties. Officials told the Times this was a move to assert Syria’s “traditional secularism” in the face of rising threats from radical groups in the region.

Apparently with the imprimatur of Syria’s first lady, nongovernmental organizations are springing up to engage in humanitarian works. US nonprofits have not been discouraged from working there. This seems to sanction a new degree of careful public activism provided such organizations skirt clear of politics and thus run afoul of a continuing authoritarian regime.

If these cautious steps signal a step or two into modernity and out of Syria’s cloistered past, that is all to the good. If it means that Syria, at last alarmed by the extent of extremism and violence in the region, is finally shifting its influence on behalf of peace, that would be magnificent.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.