Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 19 June 2010 12:00 UK

Syria's Bashar al-Assad: A leader who cannot be ignored

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC News, Damascus

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad says that Israel is not a "partner for peace" and that "when you don't have peace you have to expect war". But the country has other partners in the region, and further afield.

flag showing President Hafez al-Assad and his son President Bashar al-Assad
Syria has been ruled by the Assads, father and son, for 40 years

In the narrow lanes and covered alleys of the old city of Damascus, you can buy fridge magnets showing black and white photos of Syria's first family in the days of its patriarch, President Hafez al-Assad.

His son Bashar inherited the job when he died 10 years ago. On the magnets you can see Bashar and his siblings on their bikes in the early seventies, watched lovingly by their smiling parents.

Just like any other happy family - except that dad was an air force general who had seized power in one of the coups that were practically annual events in Syria for 20 years after the trauma of the creation of Israel in 1948.

While the kids were having fun on their new bikes, Assad senior was redefining the phrase "iron grip".

Central, once more

Hafez Assad was the kind of Middle Eastern leader about whom people used words like calculating, ruthless, and dominating. He sent in tanks and artillery to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.

He was a formidable negotiator. The story goes that he made sure the US Secretary of State Warren Christopher was served many glasses of tea during marathon diplomatic talks - but never offered a bathroom break.

President Bashar al-Assad
Bashar Assad was a vocal opponent of the US invasion of Iraq

Bashar Assad is a very different man. On the couple of times I have met him he has been friendly, even charming, and answered the questions he has been asked.

He conducts interviews with foreign reporters in a walnut-panelled library in a guest house next to the presidential palace, on a hill overlooking Damascus.

Apparently a famous Japanese architect designed it as a family home back in the 1980s, though the Assads have never lived there. It feels like a small and luxurious Middle Eastern hotel, lots of marble and mother of pearl inlaid furniture.

Ten years after what his father made sure was a smooth succession Syria is back at the centre of all of the big issues of war and peace in the region. And President Assad the second has become, like his father, a Middle Eastern leader who cannot be ignored.

Troublesome old friends

Syria under Bashar Assad is trying to face in all directions at the same time. Perhaps improbably, the policy is working pretty well.

The Iran connection puts Syria dangerously close to the centre of the growing and dangerous crisis over Iran's nuclear plans

Countries who want to get closer include Russia, France, Turkey and diplomatically ambitious Brazil. Iran has been an ally since his father's time. Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hezbollah, Israel's implacable enemy in Lebanon.

The Americans want a rapprochement, as long as he drops some of his troublesome old friends in Beirut and Tehran. That he says he won't do - even though the Iran connection puts Syria dangerously close to the centre of the growing and dangerous crisis over Iran's nuclear plans.

Here in Damascus the regime operates on different wavelengths at once as well. Facebook is blocked in Syria. But the first lady has her own page with several thousand friends.

Damascus feels much more open than it did in the first President Assad's time. But human rights campaigners and political dissidents get locked up, as this is still a police state.

Secret police

A few years ago I went to see a lawyer, a critic of the regime, who had just been released from prison and was heading back there fast.

He had a black eye, given to him by a couple of thugs who had jumped off a motorcycle outside his block of flats and beaten him up, without saying a word. Their fists were doing the talking and he assumed the message was from the secret police.

Syrian soldier next to post of Hafez al-Assad
Syria lost the Golan Heights border region to Israel in 1967

Half close your eyes and you could have been with a dissident intellectual in Eastern Europe in the seventies or eighties.

And then there's Israel. For years, Israelis have believed it should be easier to make peace with Syria than with the Palestinians. The main reason is that giving back the occupied Golan Heights to Syria would be far less controversial inside Israel than giving up the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

As well as that, the secular Syrian regime is seen as pragmatic, as long as the deal is right. But President Assad said in our interview that there was no hope of making peace with the current Israeli government, not unless they changed their behaviour.

And there's another problem. Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the last few years have been indirect, mediated by a neighbour - Turkey. And since Israeli troops killed nine Turks on the Gaza flotilla, Turkey doesn't believe the Netanyahu government is serious about peace either.

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