Syria Fashions Key Role in Postwar Relations New Pragmatism in Foreign Policy Helps Shed Country's Pariah Image
Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 dramatic turnaround.
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 fit.
"The government has made a series of very astute tactical moves that point toward a transformation into a strategic alignment," says one diplomat.
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 diplomat.
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. …