BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Caught between Iraq and a hard place, Syria's young president, Bashar Assad, has been feeling the heat from Washington lately and began his own offensive -- albeit one of charm and diplomacy.
Although Syria did not make it on to President George W. Bush's initial "axis of evil," it trailed not far behind. In the eyes of some officials in the Bush administration, if Syria did not make the A-list, it certainly belonged in the "Mini-Me" version. Syria still figures prominently, along with other nations the neo-conservatives in Washington would like to see undergo regime change a la Iraq.
Highly unusual for what was once regarded as a reclusive regime -- at least when it came to international travel and high-act diplomacy -- Assad has been hitting the road, trying to improve his country's standing and to seek international support. As indeed Bouthaina Shaaban, a minister in Assad's Cabinet disclosed to United Press International last December, Syria has come to realize it is time to open up to the world.
The sudden arrival of thousands of U.S. troops on its eastern border spurred by the U.S. invasion of Iraq last spring left Syria feeling further isolated and threatened.
After a long season of diplomatic inactivity, Assad suddenly flew to Greece last December. He later hosted Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva and then struck a deal with the European Union. Indeed, on Dec. 10, the European Commission announced a new trade pact with Syria to develop political and trade ties, extending the EU's policy of constructive engagement with countries dubbed "rogue states" by the United States. Syria was the final holdout in the 12-country Euro-Mediterranean region, seen in Brussels as the EU's back yard, to sign a pact with the EU.
This week it was a highly publicized three-day state visit to Turkey, the first by a Syrian president to its powerful northern neighbor; a visit the Syrian president labeled as "historic."
The main objective of this trip is to prevent the Kurds in northern Iraq from breaking away and forming an independent state -- a move that Syria and Turkey, who both have large Kurdish populations, are wary of and will oppose. Ankara and Damascus fear such a move by Iraqi Kurds would encourage similar feelings among Kurds in their countries, leading to greater regional turmoil.
Turkey and Syria, in fact, issued a joint warning Tuesday against any move that would alter the territorial integrity of Iraq. Syria and Turkey fear Iraqi Kurds could cash in favors obtained from the United States given their unfaltering support of the U.S. initiative in toppling Saddam Hussein.
This rapprochement is quite a change from two countries that came close to military confrontation in 1998 over accusations by Ankara that Damascus was supporting Kurdish rebels. Another area of dispute and past tension between the two countries is over water rights.
"We have moved together from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust. We now have to change the atmosphere of instability in the region to one of stability," Assad was reported to have said, following his meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Necder Sezer.
Another topic of concern to Syria is Israel, with which it is technically still in a state of war. Israel enjoys cordial relations with Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country that is now ruled by an Islamist-leaning government. Israel, reports Beirut's Daily Star, has conveyed to Turkey messages that it would like passed to Assad, and Israel's ambassador to Ankara, Pinchas Avivi, the paper says, is expected to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Receb Tayyib Erdogan the day after Assad's departure.
The United States is another country that will be closely monitoring the outcome of this "historic" visit. Both Syria and Turkey opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Turkey, a NATO member, barred U.S. troops from using its territory as a transit point, en route to oust Saddam, forcing the U.S. military to alter its invasion plans; Syria also vociferously opposed the war.
The United States largely ignored Turkey's anti-war stance, but lashed out at Syria, accusing it of aiding and abetting Iraqi forces, of harboring remnants of Saddam's Baath Party, of hiding Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction and of supporting terrorism.
The Syria Accountability Act, passed almost unanimously by both houses of Congress last month and endorsed by President Bush, is in fact aimed at placing greater pressure on Syria, unless it abides by U.S. demands to cooperate and distance itself from what the United States and Israel regard as terrorist groups.
Analysts in the region regard Assad's latest charm offensive as "a turning point in regional politics," something the Middle East could well do more with. As Bush prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Jan. 20, it will be worth watching to see if Syria, given Assad's new initiatives, has moved up or down on the American president's list.