Wooing the Pariah How Syria's Assad Is Steering His Country out of Isolation

Washington still counts him as part of its axis of evil, but Europe and Russia -- and, more recently, even archenemy Israel -- are courting him as a negotiating partner. The ruler of Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad, wants to lead his country back to the international community.

By Erich Follath


Bashar Assad will never be a charismatic politician like Barack Obama or a populist leader in the style of Fidel Castro. Forced into politics by his über-father, Hafez Assad, the "Lion" of the nation, the 43-year-old former ophthalmologist consistently comes across as stiff and awkward on the international stage.

He always gazes into the distance during public appearances, as if he wanted nothing to do with politics and would much rather be someplace else. Even today, after leading his country for eight years, Assad still gives the impression that he longs to return to treating patients in his former practice in London or attending an ophthalmologists' conference. At state receptions, the tall president stands stiff as a board, as if he had swallowed a giant pencil, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, a lost flamingo in the palace of power.

But anyone who sees Assad as a political lightweight, as someone easily manipulated by his advisors and a marginal figure ridiculed or at best ignored by the major players on the world stage is making a mistake. Syria is in the process of becoming a decisive force in the Middle East once again.

This is partly the result of the important role Damascus plays in regional politics, with its special contacts with neighbors Iraq, Israel and Turkey. But Assad also deserves some of the credit. When the spotlight he so dislikes is turned off and he embarks on discussions with the powerful in the smallest of groups, Assad no longer comes across as absentminded and wooden. Instead, he seems focused and reveals himself as a clever strategist who pursues his objectives and only suggests a willingness to be conciliatory when he has no other options.

Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of roughly 20 million Ismailites worldwide, is visiting the Syrian capital Damascus. The Ismailites, who live primarily in the Middle East, East Africa, Central Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, often constitute the social avant-garde. The Shiite community is also an influential minority in Syria. The Aga Khan Development Network is the world's largest private aid organization, and the man who founded it, 71-year-old Aga Khan, is considered a leading representative of moderate Islam. Its his personal relationships with political and business leaders in the West and the East as much as his billions that make him a much sought-after advisor. The visit to Damascus is the imam's fourth meeting with Assad in recent years.

But the Aga Khan's visit is only one of a series of meetings with world politicians. The Syrian president is suddenly being wooed internationally. At the invitation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Assad attended the European Union and Mediterranean Summit in mid-July, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He also attended the annual Bastille Day parade in Paris as a "guest of honor." In early August, he traveled to Tehran to discuss the escalation in the nuclear weapons dispute with Iranian leaders. In late August, after the Russian military's combat operation in Georgia, which he described as justified, he made a state visit to Moscow, where he negotiated with President Dmitry Medvedev over the expansion of a Russian naval base in Syria and Moscow's delivery of state-of-the-art weapons systems to Damascus. As SPIEGEL has learned from intelligence circles, Syria is considering stationing "Iskander" ballistic missiles -- as a direct response to the systems Washington plans to install in Poland and the Czech Republic soon.

Map of Syria and the Middle East
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Map of Syria and the Middle East

The Israelis responded with concern to the news of new weapons shipments. Nevertheless, they have not discontinued the talks currently underway between Jerusalem and Damascus, with Turkey serving as the middleman, and in which, as insiders report, astonishing progress is being made. Regaining the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed, is the chief goal of Syrian foreign policy. In return, Damascus could be willing to renounce violence and possibly even recognize the Jewish state.

The only major players absent from the ranks of those wooing Assad are the Americans -- for now. The government of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney, which defines Syria, along with Iran and North Korea, as a "rogue state," probably lacks the power to make an about-turn in its relationship with Damascus. The economic sanctions Washington imposed in the spring of 2003 are still in force. But Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has already offered Syria talks without preconditions if he wins the election in November. Assad is currently celebrating an astonishing comeback on the international stage, especially in light of the humiliations he and his country suffered not too long ago. Less than a year ago, Assad was still a pariah.

In September 2007, Israeli fighter jets, in flagrant violation of international norms, bombed a military facility deep inside Syrian territory. The attackers claimed that it was a reactor used to produce weapons-grade materials, a North Korean-Iranian-Syrian joint venture. The Syrians said it was a conventional military facility, and yet they were noticeably reticent when it came to voicing anything resembling sharp protests or threats of revenge.

Syria, at the time, was considered practically leprous. Only a few months ago, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offended officials in Washington and his own chancellor when he proposed entering into talks with Assad. When the Americans argued that Syria had allowed suicide bombers to slip into Iraq to attack US troops there, Assad remarked that it was an unfair accusation, especially considering that even the United States is incapable of completely sealing off its border with Mexico. Even more serious was the accusation that Damascus had been involved in the murder of leading Lebanese politicians Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005.

The United Nations investigation headed by Berlin Public Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis suggested that senior Syrian politicians were at least aware of the plot, but subsequent investigations fizzled under Mehlis's successors after the German withdrew from the commission. Assad has now defused the still-unsolved murder case by agreeing to a concession. Despite Damascus's past treatment of Lebanon as more or less an extension of Syrian territory, a place where its intelligence agents could do as they pleased, the president will now formally recognize the cedar state. He offered Beirut the exchange of ambassadors, but only after it had become clear that the powerful Hezbollah militias, funded by Syria and Iran, would not be disarmed and that its representatives would be given veto power in the Beirut government.

Is Assad truly a moderating force in the Middle East today, a man transformed from agitator to peacemaker -- like Saul who, according to the Holy Scriptures, transformed himself into Paul as he traveled to Damascus in Biblical days? Can Assad, with his track record as an authoritarian leader, use his foreign policy successes to turn his country into a Middle Eastern model of democracy? Or is he still a dangerous adversary who is merely maneuvering?

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