THE ornately gilded VIP lounge at Damascus airport has been busy
lately. No sooner has one prominent visitor been ushered out of its
richly carved paneling, it seems, than another is being welcomed in.
Over the past two weeks alone, the Syrian government has hosted
United States Secretary of State James Baker III, Iranian President
Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Dutch foreign minister - who will be
chairing the European Community for the next six months, and Soviet
Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.
For a country that was an international pariah less than a year
ago, shunned by the West for sheltering terrorists and spurned by
its Arab neighbors for a variety of other reasons, this is a
Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Salman sees the shift as
evidence that "Syria is not a closed island, but a basic center in
determining the fate and future of the area."
Foreign diplomats say rather that Syria is looking West because
it has no other options, and that it has adapted its policies to
"The government has made a series of very astute tactical moves
that point toward a transformation into a strategic alignment," says
While there are probably elements of truth in both perspectives,
the most remarkable aspect of President Hafez al-Assad's bid to
place Syria center-stage is that he has done it without the help of
his traditional patron, the Soviet Union. Out of a potential
disaster for Damascus - Moscow's retreat from a major role in the
Middle East - Mr. Assad has fashioned considerable success.
Both Western and Syrian officials trace Damascus's new relations
with Washington - highlighted by Syria's membership of the US-led
coalition against Iraq - to the October 1989 Taif accord to end the
civil strife in Lebanon.
"When Syria saw in Lebanon that it could do business with the
United States, that built confidence early on," says a Western
A second opportunity to develop that confidence came last August.
"The Gulf crisis played a positive role in this respect,"
explains Muhammad Heir al-Wadi, editor of the government daily
Tishreen. "We found our principles were in common."
The closer contacts over the Gulf crisis, and the meeting last
September between President Bush and Assad "helped the West
understand Syria's position better," says Mr. Heir al-Wadi. "They
see now that Syria is playing a positive role in building stability,
and that Syria is not hostile to the West."
"For the first time in 20 years the American administration came
to us to hear our point of view," says Information Minister Salman.
"When the West acknowledges Syria's importance in the region and
takes steps to develop relations, that strengthens our trust that
its interest in solving Middle East problems is serious."
Until recently, complains Elias Najmeh, a member of parliament
for the ruling Baath Party, "Europe and the United States were
trying to isolate us. …