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Yearender: Syria opens up new horizons over diplomacy in 2008
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08:51, December 08, 2008

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Syria, continuously blacklisted by Washington as a state sponsoring terrorism, witnessed a dramatic year in 2008 as it broke out of a diplomatic isolation caused by its accused role in the slaying of Lebanon's ex-Premier Rafik Hariri and opened up new horizons over its diplomacy.

During the year, Damascus mended ties with Europe, particularly France and Britain, normalized relations with its small neighbor, Lebanon, for the first time in history, and embarked on new rounds of indirect peace talks with Israel under the Turkish mediation.


At the beginning of the year, the overall atmosphere seemed rather gloomy for Syria. The West still blamed it for the Hariri assassination, though it insisted innocence, and its alleged negative role in Lebanon's worst political crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Damascus was criticized for its support for Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement, a leading bloc of the Lebanese opposition, which was vying for power with the parliamentary majority backed by the United States and its regional ally Saudi Arabia, after former President Emile Lahoud ended his term in November 2007.

The dispute over Lebanon led to a low turn-out at the Arab summit Syria hosted in March, boycotted by regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which only sent low-level representatives to Damascus. Lebanon went even far by sending nobody here.

Things, however, changed after rival Lebanese parties secured an agreement in Doha in May leading to the election of Michel Suleiman as president and establishment of a new government. Damascus was deemed to have played a constructive role in nailing down the pact.

On the other hand, the Syrian-Israeli track made headway, if not a breakthrough, when the two sides confirmed simultaneously in May that they have started indirect peace talks under Ankara's mediation after an eight-year rupture of direct negotiations.

Syria's positions were welcomed by European leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy who voiced consent of the "positive role" played by Syria in the Lebanese file and invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Paris in July to attend a summit of the European Union (EU) and countries around the Mediterranean.


Assad's visit to France in mid-July was described as a "diplomatic comeback" and a "detente with Europe" after three years of isolation following Hariri's murder.

In his own words, Assad branded the visit as a "historic visit, an opening towards France and Europe" in an interview with France's Le Figaro newspaper.

Some media even defined Assad's appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the same room at the conference as a "diplomatic breakthrough," although they did not exchange any word.

During the visit, Assad held face-to-face talks with Sarkozy, sat together with European leaders at the Mediterranean summit, and most prestigiously, attended France's national day festivities, a privilege usually reserved for France's warmest friends.

Assad also talked with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman, the first of its kind since Suleiman's election as head of state of Lebanon, during which the two leaders announced their intention to set up diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.

In the following months, Damascus was busy welcoming visiting European officials, including President of European Parliament Hans-Gert Poettering, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner andEU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The most notable was the one by Sarkozy to Damascus in early September, which formalized top-level contacts between the two countries and heralded as leading to a "new era" in bilateral relations which were severely damaged by the Hariri killing.

Shortly after the slaying, France froze high-level official contacts with Damascus and led international pressure against it and efforts to create a UN investigation and a UN-backed tribunal on suspects in the Hariri case.

During the visits, the European officials assured Syria that they wanted to sign a partnership agreement that was initialed in 2004 as soon as possible. The final signature has been postponed since Hariri's killing and Syria was the only country in the Barcelona process that has not signed the pact.

Another important visit here was the one by British Foreign Minister David Miliband, who re-established high-level intelligence links with the Syrian authorities during his trip. Miliband was the first British foreign secretary to set foot on Syria since 2000.


On Oct. 15, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and his visiting Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh signed a joint statement on formally launching diplomatic ties for the first time in six decades since their independence from the French colonial rule in 1940s.

The move came two months after a ground-breaking visit by the Lebanese president to Beirut in mid-August, who agreed with Assad to set up diplomatic relations by the year end and demarcate their borders.

Yet thorny issues between the two countries are still lingering, such as those concerning missing persons in both countries and agreements signed during Syria's presence in Lebanon.

Bilateral ties between the two countries have been chilled since the Hariri killing. Syria, a former power-broker in Lebanon, was forced to withdraw from its smaller neighbor under great pressure, ending its nearly three-decade military presence there.

Damascus was also accused of interfering in the Lebanese affairs and being responsible for a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon afterwards, which Syria also denied.

On its peace track, Syria and Israel have conducted four rounds of indirect peace talks under the auspices of Turkey since May, but a fifth round has been put on hold due to Israel's political turmoil after Olmert decided to resign over a corruption scandal.

Yet Israeli officials have voiced willingness to move the process forward into direct dialogues and Israeli defense establishment has urged the government to reach peace with Syria, even at the cost of the strategic Golan Heights.

The key issue between the two neighbors remains the status of strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981, a move not recognized by the international community.


The current U.S. administration seemed not moved by Europe's diplomatic approach towards Syria and U.S.-Syrian relations even scaled backwards late October due to a U.S. helicopter cross-border raid which Damascus said killed eight Syrian civilians.

But with lame duck President George W. Bush going out and President-elect Barack Obama taking office in January, Syria still hopes to improve relations with the super power.

Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal expressed belief that Obama would bring change in the big power's foreign policy "from a policy of war and siege to one of diplomacy and dialogue."

During the Bush years, Syria have been bearing the mark of a "rogue state" and under continuous U.S. isolation and economic sanctions.

Syria's icy ties with Washington, which traced back to 2003 when Damascus strongly objected the U.S. war on Iraq, became more tense following Hariri's killing in 2005, after which Washington withdrew its ambassador to Syria Margaret Scobey and never sent her back.

Syria has always wished that Washington could became a sponsor of its peace talks with Israel, but Bush consistently rejected the proposal, citing concerns over Syria's close ties with Iran, its support for radical Palestinian groups and Hezbollah, and its alleged ignorance of militants and weapons infiltration into Iraq.

Nevertheless, Syria still longed for a change of administration in the U.S. would bring different policies to the Middle East, especially with the new host of the White House Obama, who voiced willingness to engage Iran and Syria in his election campaigns.

In a congratulation cable to Obama after his election, Assad voiced hope that "constructive dialogue" would prevail to overcome the difficulties which stood in the way of real progress towards peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East.

During his Middle East trip, Miliband also expressed the hope that 2009 would usher in changes in the region and around the globe as there would be a new American president, a new government in Israel and elections in Lebanon and Iran next year.


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