March 16, 2009 | NOW Lebanon

Which Way Will the Wind Blow From Damascus?

Syrian President Bashar Assad has become the hottest ticket in the world, from Washington to Paris and from Riyadh to Cairo. Everybody wants to meet him, be seen with him and get on his good side. That is an amazing turnaround from three years ago where he was shunned and viewed as a pariah. Syria has suddenly become the key to solving the insoluble problems of the Middle East. And in a way it is true, but the question remains: what does Assad really intend to do and ask for?

The Syrian president has been testing the waters for a few months now regarding a rapprochement with the West. It started with France and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's active overture to Damascus, due in part to the constant advice and friendly pressure from Qatar. This French diplomatic move was not well viewed at the time by the George W. Bush administration because since 2004, France and the United States had worked hand in hand in isolating Assad. Assad knew quite well that the new incoming Barack Obama administration would be very much inclined to reach out. Which it did very recently by sending two emissaries to visit Assad in Damascus.

The thinking is that Syria is the weakest link to getting at Iran and if a wedge could be driven between the two countries, then it would be much easier to pressure Tehran and decrease the mullah's leverage on the international community.

In fact, by getting Syria to switch camps, Hezbollah and Hamas, Tehran's two most powerful proxies would be dramatically weakened.

But easier said than done, Damascus is not ready to give up its alliance with Tehran. Most probably Assad knows he has the upper hand in negotiations. He will likely have extensive demands, such as the end of U.S. sanctions, the withdrawal of Syria from the U.S. State Department list of countries supporting terrorism, the Israeli evacuation of the Golan and financial aid to make up for the loss of Tehran's help.

All these listed potential demands are in the realm of the possible, but what Assad really wants more than anything is to get the international tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri off his back. Indeed, the investigation from the start has pointed out the responsibility of Damascus in the attack, potentially involving very high-ranking members of Assad's entourage and most prominently Syria's powerful former head of the Security services and Assad's own brother-in-law, Asaf Shawkate.

After a five-year investigation, the special tribunal located in The Hague finally saw the day on March 1, though it is unlikely that proceedings will start overnight. Some believe that the court is unlikely to start proceedings before two to three years.

Nonetheless, troubling news coming from the Netherlands is boding ill for things to come. According to the Swiss daily Le Temps, citing a Dutch security source, some individuals that were taking pictures of a village near The Hague where the tribunal is located, belong to the Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian Shiite militia. Also three “incidents” (no more precisions were given) have been recorded by Dutch authorities.

Assad is definitely feeling the heat of the tribunal. During a recent interview by the Emirati daily Al-Khaleej, when asked about the tribunal, Assad reportedly warned that if the tribunal is politicized then “Lebanon will be the first to pay the price.” A warning that must have sent shivers down the spines of most Lebanese politicians from the March 14 majority.

History has shown – though it remains to be proven in a court of law – that Syria has the capacity of upsetting the apple cart in Lebanon. Several Lebanese politicians, as well as U.S. officials have accused Syria of being behind a spate of political assassinations in Lebanon.

Assad also hinted that regardless the outcome of next June's parliamentary elections in Lebanon, he nevertheless expected a status quo, meaning that Hezbollah would retain its right to veto on any government decision.

One of the dangers facing Lebanon is if Assad includes it as part of his negotiation package. John Kerry said after his visits to Damascus and Beirut a few weeks ago that the United States would stand by Lebanon. Hopefully that is a statement the Lebanese can take to the bank. But just how solvent are the banks these days remains to be seen.

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