Syrian President Bashar Assad met with his guests in his bureau for three and a half hours last week. They talked about freedom of expression, about democracy and about the problem of two Palestinians who are in need of Syrian passports.
The guests in question were not the United Nations emissary to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, or the American ambassador to Damascus. Assad devoted all that time to a group of artists and writers to propose to them that they "take advantage of the margins of freedom and criticism, which are expanding in Syria." According to the daily Al-Hayat, which ran the story, Assad even went so far as to invite the guests without their official patron, As'ad Fadeh, the chairman of the Artists' Association, so that they would feel free to talk. Assad did not forget to remind the group that their role, in the final analysis, is "to preserve the original identity of Syrian art" and that the opening of a private television station would not happen in the near future because "there is a more urgent agenda." On the other hand, Syrian television for the first time allowed the screening of part of a television series that until now had been censored, in which criticism is voiced of the judicial system in Syria.
Two days later, Terje Larsen announced, following his visit to Damascus, that Assad wants to renew negotiations with Israel without prior conditions. Last Wednesday Syria supported the concluding statement of the international conference for Iraq, which was held at Sharm e-Sheikh, in southern Sinai, in which the Iraqi government gained legitimacy, and the United States gained approval to continue the occupation of Iraq.
In another two weeks the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is scheduled to visit Syria and will undoubtedly hear similar things from Assad. Next month, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is also set to pay a "state" visit to Damascus to effect a reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Syria.
Is there a connection between Assad's meeting with the Syrian writers and artists and the political signals he is sending out so generously? Syria is no different from Egypt, Israel or the United States - all are countries in which foreign policy is an integral element of domestic policy. Syria is not blind to the demonstrations that were held last week in Lebanon against the continued presence of Syrian troops there, and it also recognizes the need to build obstacles that will prevent infiltrators from crossing into Iraq.
Bashar Assad is grappling with a series of fronts, from the center of Damascus to the center of Beirut, to Baghdad, Ramallah and Jerusalem. There is no reason to suspect him of not being concerned about the American pressure being brought to bear on him or to think that he does not understand that good relations with the United States are now a pan-Arab trend, which was reflected well at Sharm e-Sheikh. Therefore, he has to demonstrate a change in his country.
America wants to see democracy? It will see democracy, albeit in a "homeopathic" dose that will suit the Syrian body politic but can also serve as a declaration of intent.
This is the moment at which Israel customarily checks out any feelers from any country in the region to whether it is "ripe" for peaceful relations. Has there been a meaningful rise in warmth from the direction of Syria? However, the movement of the mercury also increases Israeli anxiety. Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, sees the signals from Syria as being symptomatic of an illness. All Assad really wants is to cuddle up to Israel to promote its relations with the United States, says the doctor. What he really wants is to infect us with something awful, namely negotiations with another Arab state. And the usual medicine is immediately whipped out: first let him expel the terrorist organizations from Syria.
So even though Abu Mazen and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are allowed to conduct negotiations with Hamas in Gaza, Assad is not allowed to host Hamas, and even though the Palestinian Authority is allowed to talk to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and with Islamic Jihad, Assad is forbidden from doing that.
These conditions, however right, put Israel in a ludicrous light, because if Israel is ready to view the expulsion of the Palestinian organizations from Damascus as confirmation that Assad is bent on peace, how will Israel agree to sit with Abu Mazen while bases of Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to exist in the territories? Or maybe all we have to do is reverse the direction of the "ripeness thermometer" in order to understand the logic of the government of Israel.
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