An incredible revolution is taking place in Syria. Last week the Syrian Education Ministry was ordered to change the elementary school uniform from khaki to other colors, mainly dark and light blue.
This instruction has already been subject to "profound" commentaries, suggesting the first signs of a ripening liberalization in Syria.
"Inside sources" reported that the Syrian administration is even considering canceling the military training lessons in elementary schools. Colin Powell, who visited Damascus on Friday, must have been deeply impressed by the upheaval there.
Bashar Assad has been ruling Syria for almost three years, and the economic and diplomatic paralysis is spreading in every branch of the country. The annual growth rate, 2.8 percent, is almost identical to the natural population growth, and the income per capita hardly reaches $1,000 a year.
Syria's important economic hinterland is Lebanon, which employs some 1 million Syrian workers. It lost its second economic hinterland, Iraq, about a month-and-a-half ago. The U.S. Congress' proposed "law for Syria's responsibility," banning Americans from exporting goods to or investing in Syria unless it stops supporting terror, is a swinging sword over Syria's head. And recently it has received two public slaps in the face.
One slap came from the American administration, which accused it directly of helping Saddam Hussein's regime, and the other, last week, came when French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin announced it was time Syria withdraw from Lebanon. Such blatant diplomacy has not been heard or seen for many years.
Syria is not the next in line for an American military attack, but it is treated by America as though it were contaminated with SARS or is at least an irrelevant state. When did the United States last come up with an initiative to end the Israeli-Syrian dispute? When was even one line sketched in some road map regarding the Israeli-Syrian border? The staple State Department answer is that Syria does not want to promote the peace process and is a terror-supporting state. Both these statements have grounds, at least according to official Israeli and American positions.
But can one say that Bashar Assad is more of a terrorist than Arafat? That Syria is threatening Israel more than the Palestinian terror organizations? Or does the diplomatic laziness vis-?-vis the process with Syria derive from the fact that Syria is not a real threat?
The border with Syria has been our quietest border for decades. The damage the Hezbollah caused Israel since the IDF's retreat is very far from the damage caused by the Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Israel's occupation of the Golan is not driving the Arab states to joint action, and the Syrian president has already proved an almost athletic capability to fold when facing concerted pressure.
This description of Syria and its leadership raises the question: Is Syria not "riper" than before for a political process? This question could have been answered if President Bush, who is so desirous of changing the face of the Middle East, had presented a comprehensive road map, in which Syria had something to look forward to, as well. But the map given Israel and the Palestinians regards Syria as a kind of deadweight. Its turn will come, maybe, only after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
According to the road map, success in the Palestinian track is a precondition to any progress in a regional political process.
Apparently Bush is reluctant to present too ambitious a vision, as though the Israeli-Palestinian road map is a more attainable vision than peace with Syria. And perhaps both the road map and the way the administration is treating Syria are not meant for anything more than adding a line to Bush's resume about making peace, not only war.
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