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

By Erich Follath

Part 3: Can Syria Be Democratized?


In Tartus, a small port city and former Phoenician settlement on the Mediterranean, Mohammed S. has completely different problems. An Internet journalist, he is trying to conduct research while avoiding the local authorities. He has chosen to write about a sensitive topic: the recent political murders in Syria. Understandably enough, the man has no interest in seeing his name in print. He works at the risk of his own life.

In February, Imad Mughniyah was killed by a car bomb on a Damascus street. For years, there had been rumors that the high-ranking Hezbollah terrorist was living in Syria under a false name, after plastic surgeons had altered his appearance. Mughniyah had apparently long enjoyed the protection of the powers that be. Israeli intelligence was suspected of having performed the strike, which was executed with a high degree of professionalism. Mughniyah had been at the top of the Mossad's most-wanted list.

In early August, Syrian Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman was shot on the beach near Tartus. The attackers had arrived by sea and used silencers with their weapons. Suleiman was believed to be the head of the secret Syrian weapons of mass destruction program and a close confidant of Assad. He was preparing for a trip to Tehran when he was killed. Mohammed S., the investigative reporter, is firmly convinced that the Israelis were involved. But he also believes that he can prove that precise information about the locations of the two prominent murder victims stemmed from someone close to Assad.

But isn't this an overly bold theory, the notion that Assad cooperated with the Israelis? What could have possessed him to do this?

"The trail will not lead all the way to the presidential palace," says Mohammed. "But the interests are clear. Assad is seeking to distance himself from the most radical members of his environment. In addition to the two men, he has also neutralized the provocative intelligence chief, his brother-in-law Assaf Shaukat, in a less irrevocable way, by having him placed under house arrest. And in recent days he has told his close advisors that he plans to deport Khalid Mashaal, the head of Hamas for many years. He is expected to move his base from Damascus to Khartoum in Sudan."

Western diplomats in Damascus have confirmed Shaukat's removal from power, but Mashaal's banishment remains unconfirmed. However, Mohammed S. believes that there is a grand plan: Assad complies with Western wishes, and in return he gets loans worth billions and closer relations with the European Union. The journalist has not decided yet whether, and when, he plans to publish his story. And how does the Aga Khan feel about this fascinating, often contradictory Syria, buzzing with rumors?

The spiritual leader of the Ismailites spent six days traveling through the country. During his journey, he spoke to an audience of more than 100,000 people in Salamieh, the stronghold of his religious community. He signed contracts to develop educational institutions, hospitals and microloan organizations. He dedicated the citadel in Aleppo, which had been magnificently restored with the help of his organization. Most importantly, however, he met twice with the Syrian president, whom he has known for seven years. "Assad has matured as a person and as a politician," says the leader of the Ismailites. "The West should not alienate him, and it should respect Syria for what it is: a nation with a great culture." But why has there been so little progress when it comes to domestic political reforms? "Assad wants to avoid domestic instability and chaos at all costs. And when it comes to foreign policy, he has successfully expanded his range."

Is Syria truly prepared to make amends with Israel and establish diplomatic relations with its archenemy? "Yes, people would accept this today. I believe that it will happen within no more than two years," says the Aga Khan, a gentle revolutionary who believes Syria is "on the right path."

But will it be possible to "democratize" this country domestically and, in terms of foreign policy, to liberate it from the grip of hardliners in Tehran? "There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and no peace without Syria," former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said.

The Syrian president moved up another notch on the international ladder in early September, when French President Sarkozy repaid Assad's visit to Paris. It was the first state visit by such a high-ranking Western politician in Damascus in five years. The next day, the two men met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar. Assad, who described the talks as "highly productive," suggested that further rapprochement with the West was in the works and expressed his desire for direct negotiations with Israel.

But the Syrian president made no commitments. The tide could just as easily shift once again.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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