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.
Von 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.

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?

Torture Is on the Decline, but Harrassment of Dissidents Persists

The scene is a plush, discreet café in Damascus' Old City, not far from the Omajjaden Mosque, in the middle of the "paradise of the orient," the traditional realm of the "bride of all cities," a place adored by poets and authors throughout history. Yassin al-Hajj Salih, a 47-year-old doctor, loves this Damascus.

He walks through the streets every morning, inhaling the scents of cardamom and fresh coffee, trying to commit his impressions to memory. He feels the cold surfaces of old walls, trying to preserve them, and gazes at slim minarets, hoping to burn their images into his mind. He takes nothing for granted. Perhaps this is what happens to anyone who has spent half his adult life in prison. "I was behind bars for exactly 16 years and 14 days," he says. "I don't expect to be arrested again, but in Syria one can never know."

As a young man Salih, a leftist, sought to unhinge the system with his fiery communist speeches. Hafez Assad had him arrested in 1980. He spent 11 years suffering in prison without any charges having been brought against him, and he repeatedly refused to renounce his ideals. He was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison, as well as an additional year for "bad behavior," to be served in Tadmur Prison, a place notorious for torture. "Our Guantanamo," Salih calls it.

After his release, Salih summoned up his remaining strength to finish medical school, and began a relationship with a woman who had also been in prison for many years. Like many Syrians, he believed in the "Damascus Spring" of 2000, when Bashar Assad came to power after his father's death and promised more pluralism.

"We were certainly naïve," says the civil rights activist. Within a year of the new president coming to power, the arrests began again. Criticism of the government had become too vehement and fundamental for the younger Assad's taste. Salih was summoned by Syrian intelligence almost monthly and "warned" about critical articles he was publishing in a Lebanese newspaper.

"It is true that there is less torture under Bashar than under his father," says Salih. But he also fails to recognize any signs of political liberalization, pointing out the government's recent treatment of regime critics, like the arrest of former businessman Riad Seif, 62, who was awarded the Human Rights Award of the German city of Weimar in 2003. Since January Seif, who has cancer, has been in prison with other members of an opposition group that had dared to publish a pro-democratic manifesto.

Salih also signed the document. He now asks himself who ended up on the list of those arrested, and why. "This arbitrariness is meant to demoralize civil rights activists like us," says Salih, who turned from communist to social democrat long ago. And then the fearless Salih voices yet another of his deliberately provocative opinions: "We Syrians are hostages of the Assad family."

For Salih, the many changes that Damascus has seen in recent years, including new Internet cafes, Western businesses and growing tourism, are "superficial." He wants to see fundamental change and condemns anything else as nothing but "lazy compromises."

In Aleppo, the more than 4,000-year-old trading center in northern Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the terminus of a branch of the legendary Silk Road, there is also a man who is convinced that he knows what matters to Syrians. "Religious freedom and improvement of living conditions, those things are important," says Grand Mufti Dr. Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, 59, as he fingers his prayer beads.

Hassoun is the leader of Syria's Sunni Muslims, who make up about 75 percent of the country's population. A jovial man who laughs often and is fond of animated gestures, Hassoun completed his religious training at Cairo's renowned Al-Azhar University, where he studied Islamic Science and Arab Literature. Hassoun is not interested in being a lofty scholar, but rather a man of the people -- all the people. He aspires to be a "representative of all religions, including the atheists."

Hassoun is everything but apprehensive. His English interpreter is an Armenian Orthodox Christian, and his closest advisor is Roman Catholic. Although Syria may still be a police state, religions treat each other with greater tolerance there, unlike in neighboring Lebanon. Minorities enjoy special protections, perhaps because the "ruling family" is part of a minority religious group itself. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite minority that makes up only 10 percent of the Syrian population. The radical Muslim Brotherhood, considered a threat and brutally opposed by Hafez Assad, is now nothing more than an insignificant, underground splinter group.

"A war can never be holy. Only peace is holy, and any preacher who foments hatred must be stopped," says the Grand Mufti. "The life of one child is more important to me than any mosque, no matter how significant."

For Hassoun, the notion of a theocracy on earth is deeply suspect. He believes in a country where government and religion are separate, "in a social order based on justice and in which Muslims, Christians and Jews live in peace with one another." But to avoid sounding too much like a pacifist, the Grand Mufti makes it clear that, in his view, Israel's occupation policy and the outrageous injustices against the Palestinians are the root of all evil in the Middle East. "Suicide attacks are a regrettable reaction to this."

Hassoun was a member of the powerless Syrian parliament for eight years. Although his fellow Sunnis proposed him for the position of Grand Mufti, he was appointed by the president. Does he believe that this makes him Assad's mouthpiece? "Absolutely not," he says. Although he is generally in agreement with the president, says Hassoun, he repeatedly has grounds for criticism.

Hassoun and Assad get together several times a year for scheduled one-on-one meetings, and they meet more frequently when special problems arise. The Grand Mufti says that the complaints he hears from citizens often relate to rising inflation, corruption and unemployment. Hassoun, who sees himself as a modernizer, wants his country to open up and investors to come to Syria. "But it must happen gently," says the religious leader.

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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