Since he abruptly returned from Britain to Syria five years ago to inherit the regime from his ailing father, thirty-six year old Syrian strongman Basher al-Assad has rarely smiled in public. After all - running Syria is a serious business. But lately, it seems that Assad is showing the world a different face. While visiting Cairo last week to discuss the situation in the Middle East he actually cracked a half-smile.
Last month, in a series of interviews to Arab and international media, Assad announced that he is willing to engage in peace talks with Israel, without any pre-conditions. Just weeks before that surprising statement, he announced that he would begin to withdraw his troops from Lebanon, signaling his compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. And if that were not enough, Assad decided to host a preparatory meeting that will help, no less, to ensure the "freedom of information in the Arab world."
Are these indicators of a new, friendlier Assad than we have seen over the past few years, or has the Dictator of Damascus, Jr. finally adopted the style of his father, also known as the Sphinx?
Diplomatically speaking, Assad's sudden campaign for peace in the region is perfectly timed. Facing increasing criticism of his regime's human rights record and continued involvement in Lebanon and Iraq - policies that have subjected him to economic sanctions by the US under the Syria Accountability act - Assad desperately needs to shift attention away from his regime's repressive content to a softer style while continuing with business as usual. If you can't dazzle ‘em, you can certainly baffle ‘em.
The "withdrawal" of forces from Lebanon - which in fact was the third recent redeployment of Syrian forces that number about 25,000 - was cleverly timed as well. In August of this year, UN Security Council decision 1559 condemned the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and outlined a timetable for a Syrian military pullout. Assad, whose recent meddling in Lebanese politics allowed the pro-Syrian president, Lahoud to win another term - a move that was heavily condemned in Lebanon and abroad - had to find a way to show at least some compliance with the will of the international community. Approximately 60 buses with Syrian troops have reportedly made their way back to Damascus - but the heavy Syrian equipment, including tanks and artillery, has remained in place. Little movement was observed in the ranks of the Muhabbarat, the Syrian intelligence service, which controls the most important power centers in Lebanon's political and economic structure. And no movement was observed in the south, where the Syrian backed Hizbullah still maintains control over terrorist training camps, armories, missile caches and a TV station that preaches Jihad against the West.
The timing of the overture to Israel comes at a critical point in Israel's political climate. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is in the midst of a groundbreaking step to withdraw Israeli settlements and military bases from Gaza. Initially planned as a unilateral action, the withdrawal is evolving into a coordinated first initiative with an emerging post-Arafat Palestinian leadership. The Sharon move, while cautiously supported by a majority of Israelis, has drawn criticism from much of his right wing constituency and has threatened his government's ability to serve out its term. Opening a new Syrian track will raise the issue of the Golan Heights, a subject even more sensitive to middle of the road Israelis than the West Bank and Gaza. Assad is well aware of the fact that for Sharon to enter into negotiations over the future of the Golan today would be tantamount to political suicide, and would bury the Gaza plan. It is no coincidence that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stated last week that only Sharon is capable of making peace today.
Perhaps Assad's new face is best described with his initiative for "freedom of information in the Arab world" under which Syria hosted a preparatory conference that aimed to help coordinate the governance process of the internet. Syria has only two Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and both are state-controlled. The Syrian Computer Society (SCS) intercepts e-mail in order to identify and monitor dissidents. Among its impressive list of political prisoners Syria holds the first known Cyber dissident - Abdel Rahman Shagouri, a Syrian citizen, was arrested on 23 February 2003 at a checkpoint near Damascus for e-mailing a banned newsletter.
Assad's timing makes perfect sense and so do his intentions. Navigating between increased international pressures and facing Syrian Islamists who are determined to destabilize both the Iraqi arena as well as the Israeli one - Assad will pursue every avenue to shift attention away from his own commitments and toward the traditional Israeli scapegoat.
Nonetheless, Assad's well-calculated offer should not be dismissed out of hand. It is clear that peace and stability in the region cannot be reached without a decisive Syrian campaign against the headquarters of the terrorist groups in Lebanon and Damascus. A Syrian will to address these issues - that may be advanced through the mediating efforts of Americans and Europeans who seek to bring the Middle East conflict to its end, may actually prove as constructive in the long run. Anything else will be no more than another round of Middle Eastern style empty rhetoric.
Elliot Chodoff is a military political annalyst of ME-On Target. Nir Boms is the Vice President of the center for Freedom in the Middle East.