Syria sees warming ties in Middle East

Its improved standing poses challenge to US policy of isolation.

Just a few weeks ago, talk of a visit by the Syrian president to Lebanon would have been greeted with widespread derision. For most, Syria was considered the main cause of Lebanese political instability.

But on the back of the recent Doha agreement, which settled – for now – Lebanon's longstanding internal bickering, the trip is being broached. With it, Syria's regional and international standing is seemingly on the mend, raising questions about the viability of the US administration's policy of isolating Syria.

"There is certainly a relaxation of the strength of the criticism directed at Syria," says Rime Allaf of Chatham House, a London think tank. "The Syrians are stronger today than they were just a few months ago."

The May settlement essentially met Syria's longstanding desire to prevent the emergence of a pro-US government. Syria compromised on some points, including the reappointment of anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. But the new president is relatively pro-Syrian and the Syria-backed opposition has a cabinet veto.

"Syria got what it was always calling for," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Analysts say the deal reflects the recognition of Syria as part of the solution. "The Doha agreement was the result of not being able to isolate Syria," says Ms. Allaf. "There was a realization ... that without Syria nothing was going to happen."

Most significantly, France has reestablished diplomatic ties cut last year. Syria's minister of culture was welcomed Tuesday in Paris on the first Syrian visit in three years. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been invited to attend a French-backed Mediterranean summit in Paris next month.

Regionally, Mr. Assad is cementing the gains of the Lebanon settlement on a tour of Arab states that has taken in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Libya. While Egypt's Hosni Mubarak boycotted a summit in Libya Tuesday of Arab Mediterranean countries, analysts say a reconciliation there is possible as well. In Lebanon, there is talk of a visit by Assad and the reestablishment of ties for the first time since they gained independence more than 60 years ago. All of this comes as peace talks between Syria and Israel have resumed through Turkish mediation, with further meetings anticipated later this week.

Syria's improving stature undermines the policy of the United States, formed in response to Syria's relations with Iran and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as its alleged facilitation of the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. "Other international forces see this is an opportunity, and they are no longer gathering around the current American administration's policy of isolation," says Samir Altaqi, head of the Orient Center in Damascus and a government adviser.

Syria, which says it wants to engage with the US and see sanctions end, has called for US participation in any peace process with Israel. But the White House has continued to express its displeasure with Syria while voicing ongoing unease over Israel-Syria talks. "The United States has serious concerns over the Syrian government's behavior, including its support of terrorism, clandestine nuclear program, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq, repression of its own people, and interference in the affairs of its neighbors, including Lebanon," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack following the news of French reengagement.

Analysts say Syria faces other challenges to its rehabilitation. Allaf notes that Lebanon could still implode as political parties struggle to form a government. Syria also remains under suspicion for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Others point to the continued tensions with regional powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Still, some observers see prospects for regional reconciliation. "Those advocating engagement say that Damascus is ready to deal, especially on the Golan and peace with Israel," says Andrew Tabler, the American editor of Syria Today, "and that this opportunity should not be missed."

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