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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 03:46 GMT 04:46 UK
Winds of change in Damascus

By Lyse Doucet
BBC, Damascus

The US Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the Middle East continuing a new phase of shuttle diplomacy.

Now that Saddam Hussein's regime has been toppled in Iraq, the United States and its allies are turning their focus to the long stagnant Israel Palestinian peace process and a wider Arab Israeli peace.

Last week Mr Powell started this new accelerated phase of diplomacy in Damascus with a strong and clear message to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad that Washington expected change including an end to Syria's support for militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups classified as terrorists.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Damascus, 3 May 2003
Damascus and Washington know they need to work together
In Damascus there is a sense that change is in the offing.

I knew what I wanted - apricots and pistachios - and walked purposefully through the maze of narrow alleys in the old city towards Souk Bazuriye, the spice market past tiny stalls with delicate glass bottles of mysterious elixirs.

Past displays of nougat wrapped in twists of foil and ribbon until I was completely enveloped by the mingled scents of spices and herbs.

But I fixed my gaze on neat rows of golden dried apricots and the mounds of pistachios bursting from shells speckled with salt.

Then, suddenly, a large paper bag was thrust under my nose. The sharp aroma of curry wonderfully overwhelmed my senses.

Would you like some? - the shop owner asked. I shook my head. He opened another bag with another intoxicating fragrance. I still did not budge.

Then from the corner of my eye, I saw him move to the far corner of his thin wedge of a shop. With a large metal scoop and a long plastic bag, he carefully measured a hefty portion of thyme.

We are the best negotiators, better negotiators than Iraq
Syrian man
And then in a merchant's minuet, he stepped from side to side with the scoop - toasted sesame seeds, red sumac, a cascade of shredded coconut, slivers of almonds and pistachios, the Arab version of thyme known by its magical name of Zahtar - he carefully knotted the bag and ran his hand down the side, transforming all these layers into an irresistible rainbow.

Then, he held it up, poised to drop it in my shopping bag.

How very tempting.

So he swiftly concocted another large pinch of zahtar and with a splash of olive oil pressed it into the palm of my hand - delicious to behold and to taste. I bought not one, but two.

Yearning for change

Such are the charms and skills of the Damascene traders.

"We are the best negotiators," one Syrian friend boasted.

His family of silk merchants set up shop in the old city in the early 1900s. He leaned across the counter, elbows resting on bolts of bright shimmering cloth.

"Better negotiators," he whispered, "than Iraq."

But this was not about haggling over prices and wares. This was politics.

Everywhere I went in Damascus, everyone mentioned the word change. Everyone said they wanted it. Nobody knew exactly how or when.

But Syria now knows that after Iraq, Damascus is in Washington's cross hairs - repeatedly accused of supporting groups and activities classified as terrorist.

It was no coincidence that Colin Powell started his new phase of Mid-East diplomacy in Damascus to send a clear message.

"But they need Syria," one well-placed Syrian official insisted, speaking with the same kind of confidence and certainty as the spice merchant who knew the final offering would be irresistible.

In the Middle East, there is one elusive prize - a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Syria's role

Without Syria on board, it is impossible to achieve.

Damascus has long cast itself as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, a bulwark against Israeli hegemony.

It has long been a patron of militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups.

And through decades of secret and more open talks, the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad firmly held out for the return of all land on the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

One American diplomat famously described talking to Assad as bladder diplomacy. It meant sitting through lectures on Middle East history, sometimes lasting six to eight hours, sipping endless cups of tea. Strength was measured by who would blink first and ask to go to the toilet.

Today in the Middle East, it is Hafez al Assad's son Bashar who is negotiating - a 30-something, British trained ophthalmologist thrust into power when his father died three years ago.

His recent session with Mr Powell lasted a modest two and a half hours.

But it is just the start. And Mr Powell says President Assad understands the message - change or we will turn up the pressure - not by the overwhelming military force inflicted on Iraq but a range of economic and diplomatic weapons.

Iraq echoes

Syrian sources say they understand Washington means business.

But this is a country with echoes of Iraq - power is in the grip of a feared network of intelligence services, and the old guard of a ruling Ba'ath party.

They are resisting change. They will lose out, financially and politically, if it ever happens.

The young Assad raised hopes for political and economic reform but he still has not delivered.

His critics are deeply disappointed. His supporters say give him more time.

Much will depend on progress in what is known as the roadmap, the new Israeli Palestinian peace plan.

Much will also depend on how Washington plays its cards.

Syrian officials have long described their approach as steadfast... like the spice traders they have stood their ground, knowing where their interests lie and trying to persuade others of their merits.

The final package may eventually be splendid - a Syrian role in a wider peace but Washington knows what it wants now and it certainly will not give in.

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