A CAREFULLY PLANNED SERIES of deft policy manoeuvres has propelled President Bashar Al Assad of Syria to centre-stage in Middle East politics, poised to emerge as a dominant force for peace.
He has found a willing partner in Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, for a leap into the post-Bush era of international relations by ending Syria's prolonged diplomatic isolation and moving towards the recovery through negotiations of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. A recent cross-border raid from Iraq mounted by the outgoing American administration on Syria may not prevent that. Assad's success could redraw the political map of the troubled region.
The Syrian ruler is 43 years old; eight years ago, he assumed the mantle of power on the death of his father Hafez Al Assad. His reign in Damascus has thus coincided with that of George W. Bush in the White House. Initially, he took to his role uncomfortably, looking perpetually troubled and uneasy at diplomatic functions.
This has now changed. In September, Assad chaired a hugely successful Summit for Stability in preparation for direct peace negotiations with Israel. The meeting in the Syrian capital was attended by such influential visiting peacemakers as Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, and his prime minister Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, as well as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, and France's president Sarkozy.
The last, unsuccessful direct negotiations between Syria and Israel over the recovery of the Golan Heights also took place just eight years ago, under American auspices.
President Assad recently declared that an end to the formal state of war with Israel has always been a cornerstone of his policy. He is also anxious to see an end to the ruinous American trade sanctions imposed in 2003 by the Bush administration that branded Syria as a "rogue state", assisting terrorists.
The first tangible result of Damascus ending its pariah status in international relations has been the establishment, negotiated with help from Qatar, of a peace deal and formal diplomatic ties between Syria and neighbouring Lebanon. Both are former French colonies.
That accord, signed in October by Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, and Fawzi Salloukh, his Lebanese counterpart, will lead to an exchange of diplomatic missions and the demarcation of the border between the two countries for the first time in six decades. This is a highly significant...