The giant blot on the landscape outside of Damascus is best known as "the People's Palace." It's an intimidating example of a ruler's residence. The red carpet visitors must walk along before they can enter President Bashar Assad's reception hall is over 100 meters long. And that, along with the height of the ceiling in these halls and the chill of the gray marble walls is supposed to make guests feel smaller.
Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier shake hands in Damascus:Foto: AFP
Still, Germany's foreign minister seemed cheerful as he trod the route. This is his first visit to see the Syrian president in Damascus in over two years. Since then he has been trying to promote what he describes as a "regional solution" to conflict in the Middle East, to attempt to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together with their Arab neighbors in the pursuit of a peaceful outcome, satisfactory to all parties.
From early on -- perhaps even earlier than US President Barack Obama -- Steinmeier has been seen as potentially constructive player in this drama. On Tuesday, the second day of his Middle Eastern trip, the Syrians were trying hard to justify Steinmeier's faith in them and to present themselves as willing aids in the peace process. All of which was a welcome change for the German foreign minister, who had had a comparatively less warm reception in Israel on Monday.
Even the first two minutes of his talks with Assad demonstrated this. The pair hardly had a chance to sit down in the heavy, inlaid armchairs before the conversation -- in English and without a translator present -- turned to the brisk pace of diplomatic travel in the region. "The climate has changed," Assad said happily.
Steinmeier Calling for Early Talks
The German foreign minister spent an hour and a half in talks with the Syrian president, and they were alone in the room for 45 minutes of that time -- much longer than planned. No concrete results were reported but it was clear all along there wouldn't be any. The first task was to reassure one other that both sides have detected the same thing: That there's a chance of progress in the Middle East after years of deadlock.
Steinmeier stressed in Syria, as he had done in Israel on Monday, that the current opportunity may be short-lived. He believes Obama provided impetus by indicating he's ready to take a tougher line with Israel. Now the players in the region have to position themselves. Negotiations have to start very quickly, Steinmeier said in Damascus. "The chances we have must be seized this year, otherwise the window will close," he said.
He wants Palestinians and Israelis to start final status negotiations this autumn to replace a "peace process" that has been torpedoed and watered down all too often. That's the position shared by the United States and Steinmeier. It's worth a try after the failure of previous attempts, they believe.
The Syrians, who until now have given the impression that time is the least of their concerns, were surprisingly clear on Tuesday in agreeing that time was now of the essence. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem hinted that Syria's ties with Iran -- a sticking point with the international community -- may no longer be a taboo issue.
Asked by a journalist what he thought of the US demand that Syria divorce itself from Tehran in exchange for a return of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel, he said no one could predict what would happen to the relationship once the Golan Heights were returned to Syria.
The minister also reaffirmed at a joint news conference with Steinmeier that his country remained ready to negotiate with Israel. But he added that he would prefer the talks initially to be held indirectly via Turkish mediation. Israel is currently signalling that it would prefer to negotiate directly with Damascus. So the issue here is not whether but how -- a further tentative sign of rapprochement.
Movement in Damascus
The most likely source of friction is Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The Syrians are tight-lipped on this issue.
At the same time, Damascus is already making palpable moves. The one-time de-facto occupying power didn't interfere in recent national elections in Lebanon. And Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid al-Muallim claims the country will not try to assert influence on the formation of a government in Beirut either. In fact, Syrian-friendly forces lost at that election. Meanwhile, even the ambassadors between Damascus and Lebanon have changed.
The congenial talks in Syria are a success for Foreign Minister Steinmeier, for whom this may be a last visit to the area. The role of the German foreign minister in this region is not usually a large one. But Steinmeier's visit has some meaning. It was a contribution towards making Syria more accepted in the international community, even if, at least initially, it is just the turn of one of many screws holding the house of conflict resolution together.