- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan | Syrian President Bashar Assad is drawing his country back into the Western-led international fold, thanks to French leadership, raising mixed expectations on how the Syrian rapprochement with the West will affect its “rejectionist” role and alliances with Iran and anti-Israeli movements.

Mr. Assad was among dozens of world leaders attending France’s Bastille Day celebrations on Monday, watching the traditional military parade on the Champs Elysees - a day after he joined 40 other leaders to inaugurate a new Mediterranean union upon the invitation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Syrian president over the weekend made a dramatic diplomatic comeback after years of isolation, during which he was given a red carpet reception as Mr. Sarkozy’s honored guest at the Elysee Palace and held important bilateral meetings that emerged with encouraging signs that Damascus was ready to do what it takes to return to the good graces of Europe.

While Mr. Assad avoided a close encounter with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also attended the inauguration of Mr. Sarkozy’s brainchild, the Mediterranean Union, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained an intermediary between the two leaders in terms of their peace negotiations, which are yet to become face-to-face.

The most important accomplishment was the historic culmination of Mr. Assad’s two meetings with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in Paris, in which they agreed to establish diplomatic relations by opening embassies in their respective countries for the first time since Lebanon and Syria’s independence from French colonialism.

Diplomatic ties between the neighbors drew a barrage of welcomes from European states, which they saw as an encouraging step toward stabilizing Lebanon and the entire region; in other words, a Syrian role change from being a “destabilizing force” through its alliances.

Germany, however, maintained a skeptical view similar to that of the Bush administration, which continues to blacklist Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and part of Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” for Damascus’ alliance with Iran and anti-Israeli factions, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization and Palestine’s Hamas movement.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel held unscheduled talks with Mr. Assad in Paris on Sunday after the announcement of establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon, she said the West now wants to “see actions because enough words have been exchanged.”

German government spokesman Thomas Steg said Monday that if Syria wanted to end its ostracism from the international community, it should show its “good will” with “good deeds, such as a readiness to ensure that the alleged - at least never ruled-out - weapons smuggling over the land route to Hezbollah militias is stopped.”

Analyst speculations, however, were mixed on whether Syria would actually switch sides, or whether it was ready to improve its relations with the West and make peace with Israel at the expense of its connection with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance factions.

While some commentators suspect that Damascus would abandon Iran if it is compensated politically and financially by the West, others say its diplomatic comeback could actually pacify the Western conflict with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, as well as pacifying Hezbollah and Hamas.

Syria’s anti-Western allies have been unusually silent about Damascus’ resumption of the peace negotiations with Israel, indicating that Syria has their blessings and some kind of assurances that it would not “betray” them.

In an interview with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera in Paris on Sunday, Mr. Assad insisted that “Europe knows we have not changed our positions.” He was responding to how the new rapprochement with the West will affect Syria’s “rejectionist” status.

Some analysts argue that Syria’s return from the cold can actually boost Mr. Assad’s role on both sides of the divide, making him a bridge between the West - more specifically Europe - on the one hand, and the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis on the other.

During their talks, Mr. Sarkozy apparently asked for Mr. Assad’s help in using his good relations with Iran to urge that country to be more transparent with the international community about its atomic program in order to peacefully resolve the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear agenda. The French president also sought Mr. Assad’s influence on Hamas to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier in Gaza.

An Arab diplomat close to the Syrians told the Middle East Times that Mr. Assad’s strengthened European position has also strengthened his influence with his allies in the Middle East and is in agreement with these allies on “finding a new mechanism” in Iran’s dealing with the West and Hezbollah’s “resistance approach that would be more acceptable to the West.” The same goes for Hamas, he said.

In other words, Mr. Assad has begun to play his cards and his alliances seem to have become his greatest bargaining chips, not his liability for isolation.

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