After two years of isolating Syria, Europeans and Americans are again knocking at President Bashar Assad s door.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived March 13 in Damascus hoping to pull off a delicate maneuver obtain a real change in Syria s attitude toward Lebanon without rewarding the country for its interference in internal Lebanese politics or its suspected involvement in the assassination of several political and media personalities.
It was Solana s first visit to Syria since the slaying of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, a crime believed to be tied to Syria. Hariri was leading a movement to force Syria to end its decades-long domination of Lebanon.
Solana came to Syria several days after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat at the same table as the Syrian delegation at a conference on stabilizing Iraq.
The shift in Europe s approach toward Syria reflects uneasiness in Brussels over Damascus growing alliance with Tehran.
Iran and Syria have become the main supporters of Hezbollah: Iran wants to use the terrorist group against Israel, while Syria hopes to use the Shi ite fundamentalists to maintain influence within Lebanon after Syrian troops were forced to leave in the outcry over the Hariri hit.
Europe s policy of isolating Syria may have made sense after last summer s war between Hezbollah and Israel, when pro-Western forces faced off against pro-Syrian elements collaborating with Hezbollah. But that political crisis seems to be nearing its end.
Sa ad Hariri, the slain ex-premier s son, majority leader in Parliament and head of the Future movement, met last week for the first time since the war with Nabih Berri, head of the Shi ite Amal movement and a pro-Syrian leader.
Berri told Solana on Wednesday that he was hoping to arrive at an agreement resolving Lebanese factional rifts before a March 29 Arab le! ague sum mit meeting in Riyadh. Solana and Assad were to meet Wednesday.
Brussels by no means wants to sabotage the latest developments in Lebanon or disrupt Saudi diplomatic efforts. In addition, Europe does not want to push Syria further into Iran s arms.
That helps explain France s recent flexibility, especially the willingness by President Jacques Chirac who had vetoed contacts with Syria after the Hariri killing to pledge full support for Solana s mission.
Solana arrived in Syria intending to pressure the nation to stop transferring arms to Hezbollah, a blatant violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended last summer s war. European troops have been deployed in southern Lebanon since the end of the war.
Solana would like to see Syria integrated more fully into the Arab world and to restore E.U. relations with Damascus. It seems Europe might be ready to make political concessions for this to happen.
Israeli officials are waiting to see what Europe s change of heart brings. Israeli political analysts believe recent signals by Syria of a readiness to open peace talks are merely a ploy to win the sympathy of the international community.
The sudden European change might make it easier to test Assad’s seriousness about a peace breakthrough, since he appears already to have achieved the diplomatic opening he was seeking.