Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Monday, 8 December 2008

Syria inches in from the cold

Assad propaganda display in Sitt Zeinab district, Damascus (photo Martin Asser)
President Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000 when his father Hafez al-Assad died

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Damascus

Throughout history, Syria has stood at a crossroads - of trade, of culture, of ideas. But 21st-century political disputes have left the country looking beleaguered and isolated.

In the early 2000s, the Bush administration branded Syria an "outpost of tyranny", and it seemed a dwindling number of friends were prepared to do business with its authoritarian Baathist government.

That is all changing, however. Once again the road to Damascus is jammed with foreign dignitaries coming to hold court with President Bashar al-Assad.

Visitors like France's head of state, German and British foreign ministers and top EU officials have all reinforced a message of European engagement with the Assad regime.

Troubled relations with Lebanon are settling down, indirect peace talks with Israel have been revived and there are prospects of a possible diplomatic thaw with Washington's incoming Obama administration.

Syria needs more support from the world. Syria has been trying to reform its economy, but under pressure
Syrian economist Samir Saifan

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad told me with characteristic Syrian phlegm it was not Damascus that was coming in from the cold, rather those powers which shunned Syria who "were isolating themselves from developments in this region".

But, of course, he welcomed developments: "If the international community and the forthcoming US administration are serious about solving the problems [in the Middle East] the region is coming to a very good and promising stage in its development".

Cultural diplomacy

With a cultural thaw happening even faster than the diplomatic one, dozens of treasures from London's Victoria and Albert museum's collection are currently on display in the cathedral-like Khan Asaad Basha caravanserai in Old Damascus.

This touring exhibition - the biggest ever to reach Syria - was opened recently with a great fanfare, attended by Syria's First Lady Asma and a gaggle of luminaries some flown in from Britain.


V&A treasures on show in the Syrian capital

The theme - highly appropriate in the circumstances - is the development of global international relations over the past 5,000 year as reflected in fine ceramics.

The event may by timed for this year's Arab City of Culture celebrations in Damascus, but it would have been hard to imagine such a compliment being paid by Britain to Syria two-and-a-half years ago when Damascus and London took diametrically opposing positions during the war between the Hezbollah movement and Israel in Lebanon.

It would have been unthinkable in 2005, when Syria was being blamed for killing former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri and international pressure forced its troops unceremoniously out of Lebanon. Improbable too in 2003, when Britain and the US were leading the invasion of Iraq.

Organisers of the show insist it's a cultural rather than a political breakthrough, but the symbolism is striking.

Caravanserais like Khan Asaad Basha were once medieval storehouses-cum-hotels where foreign traders from all over the world would stay to do business when Syria was famous for its luxury products.

But in modern times diplomatic isolation has left Syria's economy in the doldrums: it desperately needs regional peace and stability to encourage foreign investment and develop more profitable commercial activities beyond the current exports of petroleum, agricultural goods and textiles.

Positive steps

Economist Samir Saifan highlights the contrast between his country's current predicament and the economic and political rehabilitation of former-communist countries of Eastern Europe.

"Syria needs more support from the world. When you compare Syria with Bulgaria, Hungary, etc, they had a lot of support from Europe. Syria has been trying to reform its economy, but under pressure and that is a very big difference."

David Miliband being offered Syrian ice cream during visit to Damascus
UK foreign minister David Miliband was a recent visitor to Damascus
The next step will be an association agreement with Europe, expected to be signed within two months, and Syria is hoping for bilateral moves with the US such as restoration of the American ambassador.

But there is a long way to go.

Damascus is still under pressure to sever its links with militant anti-Israeli movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are currently welcome guests.

Accusations about covert nuclear activity, human rights abuses and the assassination of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, though strongly denied by Syria, continue to tarnish outside relations.

But if the positive developments of the last few months have shown anything, it is that Syria is too important a regional player to be left out in the cold indefinitely.

That could mean glittering prizes ahead for the tenacious Assad regime, for example a negotiated return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.

The biggest prize for Syria's autocratic and unelected ruling elite, however, would be the kind of universal acceptance enjoyed by some of the Gulf sheikhs and certain military hard men in the region.

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