Syria weathered through the Year of 2006 and seemed to gain some leverage in its bargaining with the United States over its role in regional issues as pressure from Washington continued.
PRESSURE ON SYRIA
The U.S. administration has kept up its unilateral economic sanctions against Damascus this year and its officials have been constantly accusing Syria of supporting terrorist organizations, including Palestinian militant groups and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and trying to destabilize Iraq.
U.S.-Syrian ties, long strained, have worsened in the year as Washington has also accused Syria of helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq and failing to stop anti-U.S. guerrillas from crossing its border into Iraq -- charges denied by Damascus.
In September, a 23-page report of U.S. "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" was relesed by the White House, just one week before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in which it branded Syria and Iran as "especially worrisome" threats in the Iraq war and Arab-Israeli conflict.
It noted that "Syria is a significant state sponsor of terrorism and thus a priority for concern. The regime in Damascus supports and provides haven to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad (Holy War)."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government suffered incessant isolation from the international community which started following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Preliminary UN reports had implicated senior Syrian officials in the murder although the Arab country denied any role.
Ties between the EU and Syria have also been on ice after the death of Hariri -- a killing that many Lebanese blame on Syria, and it provoked pressure from the EU and other countries that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, ending 29 years of military presence in the country.
Furthermore, the EU criticized human rights violations by Syria 's government against activists there, and the union refused to complete a partnership trade agreement which was seen as vital to the slow-paced Syrian economic reform efforts.
However, it seemed that the isolation eased this summer during the Israel- Lebanon conflict, which was virtually fight between the Israel army and Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah and has inflicted enormous casualties and destruction to Lebanon, the only Christian country in the Middle East.
The catastrophe reminded some western powers that Syria, which has close ties with both Hezbollah and Iran, could exert influence in reining in the militant group and eventually play a role in achieving peace in the region.
EFFORTS TO EASE THE PRESSURE
As for Damascus itself, it also saw the conflict as an opportunity to demarginalize its status in the peace process and negotiate back its Golan Heights occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War.
European countries, including Spain, Germany, Italy and Britain, have made contacts with or sent envoys to Damascus since August, among whom the most notable was British Prime Minister Tony Blair's top foreign policy adviser Nigel Scheinwald in late October.
Soon after the visit, Blair, U.S. President George W. Bush's closest ally, began to advocate direct dialogue with Tehran and Damascus and made such proposals to Washington.
On the other hand, Damascus is believed to be exerting backstage influence on the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) for the formation of a new Palestinian unity government to win more confirmation of its role in the Arab-Israeli conflicts as senior officials from both Hamas and its rival Fatah movement frequented Damascus in recent months.
Encouraged by the positive signals, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem paid a landmark visit to Iraq on Nov. 19, who is the highest ranking Syrian official to visit the country since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 and a major step toward restoring diplomatic relations.
On Nov. 21, Syria agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Iraq, a policy shift and also an overture to try to promote the prospects of dialogue with Washington.
Syria also pledged security cooperation with Iraq and dropped its insistence on a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops while acknowledging it is up to the Baghdad government how long they would stay.
The Bush administration insisted, however, Damascus must follow words with actions and prove its commitment to helping the Iraqi government and stopping foreign fighters from entering the country before any engagement.
Meanwhile, debates inside the U.S. administration and Israel on whether to involve Syria and Iran in the peace talks were also heard despite official rejections from both hard-line governments.
However, decision-makers in Washington were forced to rethink their approach in Iraq after Bush's Republican party's loss in both houses of the Congress in the mid-term election which was interpreted as voters' anger over the administration's policies in the turbulent country.
On Dec. 6, the U.S. Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, issued a highly-anticipated report that recommends major changes in the Bush administration's Iraq policy, which it says is "not working."
The report said Washington should begin to withdraw forces from combat and launch a diplomatic push, including Iran and Syria, to prevent "a slide toward chaos" in Iraq, where sectarian violence kills scores of people every day.
In response to the report, the Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as positive and said it was objective in its dealing with the role of Iraq's neighbors to help achieve security and stability in the war-torn country.
Besides Iraq, differences over Lebanon still remain a key obstacle to practical contacts between Washington and Damascus.
The assassination of former Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian politician, on Nov. 21, also served as a bitter reminder of Hariri's murder and was likely to reinforce the reluctancy of the Bush administration.
Syrian leaders were also said to be worried about the set-up of an international tribunal, a blueprint of which have been endorsed by the UN Security Council, to try suspects in the Hariri case, fearing that if the investigation reaches high into the government it would shake its regime.
With all these complicacies and uncertainties interwoven together, Syria was dragging its feet into a new year which would be crucial to its future fate.