Hokayem and Young on the Assad-Sarkozy Summit

Emile Hokayem, who now works and writes for the National in the EAU sent this note out recommending his own and Michael Young's articles on the recent summit in Syria. Rather then criticise Bush for failing to push the peace process, as many on this site have, they criticise Sarkozy for opportunism, vanity and egotism, suggesting that he is selling out Lebanese sovereignty for the limelight. Here is the note followed by the articles:

Dear colleague, I am writing to share with two pieces that take a different perspective than the mainstream commentary on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus.&The first one is Michael Young's excellent "Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here."

The second is my column for the National: "Sarkozy courts Syria but who will benefit other than Assad?"

Some may be tempted to dismiss these arguments as unnecessary Lebanese panic, and others as a reflection of our much-suspected "neoconservative leanings" (a baseless claim and always a convenient way to discredit an opinion instead of weighing its merits). I hope due consideration will be given to them.&It is my conviction that Nicolas Sarkozy's opening to Assad, in its timing and manner (and not necessarily its principle), has been a tactical and strategic mistake born of misplaced expectations and wrong readings of Syrian intentions. But despite all the misgivings about Bashar al-Assad, one has to admire his ability to come back in the game by shrewdly manipulating Western actors, governments and non-governments alike.&And if you think I am fundamentally wrong, I would love to hear why.

Best regards, Emile Hokayem

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008

very long ago, you will remember, there was the Friends of Lebanon group of states, whose declared aim was to defend Lebanese sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, democratic institutions, and what have you. Meeting today in Damascus is a new fraternity, the Friends of Bashar. It includes the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Turkey, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and their aim is to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here. After having negotiated a mediocre agreement in Georgia that allowed Russia to pursue its military actions there under the guise of defensive measures, yesterday in Damascus the French president waded into the Shebaa Farms imbroglio, with the same ostentation and shallowness. Sarkozy's true purpose was plain on Tuesday when he declared that peace in the Middle East "went through France and Syria," and that his aim was to see Syria "regaining its place in the concert of nations."

Months ago, after Michel Sleiman's election, the French set some conditions for their opening to Syria, particularly the establishment of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut. We're still waiting. This was largely a pretense. Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Lebanon is an irritant on that front. The Syrians want their peace talks with Israel to be a highway to Washington; Sarkozy is willing to broker that rapprochement if France is given a seat at the negotiating table too; however Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon; therefore France will look the other way as Assad rebuilds in Beirut what he was made to abandon in 2005.

For the moment the United States refuses to go along with this, and has informed the French it would continue isolating Syria. But that may be nearing its end because the Bush administration is nearing its end. A new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will probably alter US policy toward Syria, and those in Lebanon concerned with their country's sovereignty should take heed. President Michel Sleiman has traveled to France, then to Damascus, and this week flew to Qatar to yet again thank Emir Hamad for sponsoring the Doha agreement. However, a visit to Washington at this stage is necessary, because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.

Sleiman apparently intends to fly to Washington in the near future. However, the president has no desire to transform this into leverage against Syria, nor would that be sensible at this stage. George W. Bush is leaving next January, so whatever he commits to might only last that long. However, and by the same token, Sleiman would make a mistake if he failed to use the trip to prepare for when Bush is gone. If the point is just to get a White House photo-op, then Sleiman might as well ask that his picture be taken with a cardboard effigy of Bush, because the US president is not only a lame duck, he's now virtually a dead one.     

Where Sleiman would gain is by building up networks of relations in the US Congress, in the presidential campaigns, and in the think-tank community, which has been active, reprehensibly so, in encouraging American policymakers to open up to Syria. In fact, Bashar Assad has had a battery of promoters and objective allies in such places as the United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination.

However, is Sleiman willing to go through with such an effort? Who in his entourage might be able to follow up on his contacts with the Americans? These are all questions the president will need to answer before embarking on his American tour, unless his plan is to avoid making the journey count for very much. And if that is indeed the case, then we would have to assume that little has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship since 2005, with Lebanon's foreign policy still regarded by decision-makers in Beirut as a dispensation of the Assad regime.

Sleiman, if he hopes to plot a course even mildly independent from Syria, must make his American trip work. But the Syrians have a head start. The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon – or more accurately, how little concerned they are by Syria's pursuing its destabilization of the country while imposing red lines on elected officials, on ministers, and on military and security appointees. Sleiman needs to guarantee that he has enough pull in the US so that come next year, if a new administration talks to the Assad regime, Lebanon will not once again be Syria's meal.  

Why is it so difficult to be optimistic? Perhaps because Sleiman has a lot going for him politically, but still seems too timid by half. Because he seems so keen to market Syria to the world, as he did last week when he urged the international community to "open up" to Damascus, without anyone having requested such altruism. And because the Friends of Bashar are doing their damnedest to save the skin of a man who has never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence, while the Lebanese don't seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins. 

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Sarkozy courts Syria but who will benefit other than Assad?
Emile Hokayem
September 05. 2008


The foray of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy into Middle East diplomacy has been called many things: a pure act of vanity by an intensely egotistic person; opportunism in a void created by US diplomatic weakness; and boldness by a visionary statesman in time of regional uncertainty. Given Sarkozy’s polarising persona, it is no wonder that opinions are so divided.

Despite scepticism in the US, Europe and the Arab world about the wisdom of his visit to Damascus, Sarkozy justified himself by noting that the Syrian President Bashar al Assad was following up on his promise to open an embassy in Lebanon. He also appreciated that Mr Assad was asking France to co-sponsor direct peace talks with Israel and hoped Syria would use its influence to talk Iran out of its nuclear ambitions.

The result could place France at the heart of Middle East politics. And for someone dazzled by the spotlight, he scored a diplomatic coup with the four-party summit that included the leaders of Turkey and Qatar. Many will welcome Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus, but there are indeed legitimate questions about the timing and manner of his opening to Syria, which had been shunned for the past three years for its interference in Lebanese affairs. His warm embrace of Assad displayed a curious mix of cynicism and naivety that has not been a characteristic of French diplomacy until now.

His rapprochement with Syria breaks with years of French cautiousness as a result of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and its suspected role in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese and their western allies now wonder what remains of France’s previous attachment to their fate.

Indeed, France has taken a risky road. By throwing its weight behind Assad, it is wagering that Syria would value its relationship with France enough to make tangible concessions. But it is unclear what those concessions would be. Already Sarkozy has given Assad a recognition with a high profile visit and an opening to the European Union that the French themselves had so far blocked. As many sceptics of unconditional engagement had warned, Syria’s reaction to the French opening proved that engagement itself is perceived by Damascus as a victory.

As for Syrian “concessions”, they are meagre achievements at best. In the absence of delineation of borders, of Syrian compliance with UN resolutions about arms transfers, and of a revocation of treaties imposed on Lebanon in the 1990s (demands that Sarkozy too quickly softened), the symbolic announcement of an embassy in Beirut does little to end Syrian interference in Lebanon. French diplomacy may have also misread Syrian calculations. By reaching out to Paris and indirectly negotiating with Israel, Syria seeks in reality to tie the hands of the next US president. Indeed, the US, not France, can offer Syria what it really wants: recognition of its regional ambitions, including a dominant say in Lebanese affairs. Such an arrangement, reminiscent of the international acquiescence of Syrian domination in the 1990s, would turn back the clock on the peaceful achievements of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.

Mindful of that, Syria is already courting Democratic officials and foreign policy experts in Washington, dangling before them the prospect of peace at the expense of any discussion of Syria’s past behaviour. By disingenuously insisting that the US is the only obstacle to peace with Israel and suggesting that the international tribunal looking into the Hariri and other assassinations is an unnecessary complication, Damascus hopes to send the policy of isolation into oblivion and emasculate the tribunal. Once its isolation is lifted, Syria probably reasons, the international community would not risk losing its political investment in Syria for the sake of bringing to justice Syrian suspects. In the medium term, Syrian calculations have little to do with France’s agenda. In the next year, Syria will be watching the outcomes of elections in the US, Lebanon and Israel before making its next move. It may not get what it wants but it has certainly succeeded in shaping a radically different environment.

And it may have won an unlikely ally. Israel, concerned about Hezbollah’s growing power in Lebanon, longs for the days of a return address. With Syria out of Lebanon, there is too much uncertainty for Israel, as the 2006 war demonstrated. If Syria were to abide by a strategic understanding that would stabilise its northern front, Israel may have no qualms about the return of Syrian influence next door.

Assad did not help quell concerns about predatory Syrian behaviour when he compared Georgia, which Russia invaded after claiming it posed a threat to Russian interests, to Lebanon. Sure enough, Assad claimed in his talks with Sarkozy that Sunni fundamentalism, not Syrian interference, was the real threat to Lebanese stability and by extension, to Syria, paving the ground for a possible Russian-style ‘peacemaking’ mission. For someone accused of supporting armed groups in Lebanon, this warning was worrying.

French diplomats say that considerations regarding Iran also drive the rapprochement. Instead of trying to wedge Damascus away from Tehran, long the rationale of those pushing for engagement, Sarkozy has crowned Assad as his intercessor with Tehran. He is overestimating how much leverage Syria really has. Syria does not shy away from making presumptuous claims about its regional influence. People close to the Syrian regime credit Syria with stabilising Iraq and freeing the British sailors seized by Iran in 2007, no less. A Syrian analyst also claims that only Syria can change Iran’s nuclear course, an argument that Sarkozy himself echoed yesterday.

This may be an overly pessimistic reading of Sarkozy’s Syria policy, it is up to French diplomacy to dispel these concerns – and urgently so.


Comments (27)

offended said:

Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Wow, Michael Young: Sarkozy must have hurt you a lot? He let you down didn’t he? Said he will break up with Syria forever but didn’t?

Do you want a cookie now?

Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon

Again, the whole world revolves around Lebanon. How about considering the equally ‘incriminating’ (but rather more solid) argument; that Syria uses its hegemony in Lebanon to catalyze peace talks? I am not suggesting that it is true. I am just pointing out that Young didn’t take off his set of blinkers while writing this article.

because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.

Who are those new La Costa Nostra Friends of Bashar? Sounds like one of those Familias which will convene in their dirty conclaves and conspire to destroy the world.

United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria’s role in the Hariri assassination.

At least Young is acknowledging that his position is not popular within the US ThinkTank community. maybe he should pause for a second and think why?

And one should wonder; while you can build up your case and improve your rapport with a politician by visiting him. How is Young confident that a Suleiman’s visit to the US will flip the ThinkTanks? I mean those guys are lucid and lean and can travel on their own; they’d get to Suleiman or anyone else should they need him. The Carnegie Endownment even has an office in Beirut, doesn’t it? 😉

The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon

Again, there is the hideous assumption that Syria assassinated Harriri and now its time to serve the sentence. Will how about ‘the suspect is INNOCENT until proven guilty’? you want me to spell innocent for you Young?

I am saying this because otherwise one should wonder what is Syria’s behavior in Lebanon is like: are we Syrians harassing females or caught in drunk and disorderly situation? Are there an extraordinary numbers of Syrians caught shop-lifting in Al Hamra? How does Young define Syrian behavior?

while the Lebanese don’t seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins.

Again, you are lead to believe, against your own well, that the Lebanese people are one. And that they all are subject to death threats from the Syrian regime.

Young seems to have lost all his bearings in this article. He is becoming more irrelevant by the day. He should have learned better from Junblat. (or maybe Sarkozy? :))))

September 8th, 2008, 5:38 am


Shai said:


Leave him alone. He’s still… Young. 🙂

I just love these soothsayers. They KNOW what Syria’s “true intentions” are. They KNOW what’s behind the manipulations. To them, humility is a nanosized germ in Eastern Siberia. Unheard of, and better ignored.

September 8th, 2008, 7:10 am


offended said:

Although Al Hokayem’s tone is lighter than Mr. Young’s, and although he tries to sound realistic and reasonable (probably because he writes for a UAE newspaper); he seems to follow the same line of thoughts: a bunch of bitter M 14 pundits who couldn’t bear watching Syria break its isolation.

He resorts to same old mantra that France should abandon Syria forever for its yet-to-be-defined behavior in Lebanon. And he goes on to say that France’s engagement of Syria is unconditional (how does he know?) and why does it have to be conditional from the first place? Doesn’t he allude somewhere in his article that France is gaining some potential in the ME by engaging with Syria and by butting in to sponsor the Peace Talks? Is the free advice to France based on moral stand or pragmatic stand we don’t know….

Now when he mentions Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, and how it was one of the reasons France has become ‘cautious’ toward Syria (in fact, France was outright belligerent to Syria in the last three years before the recent opening): is it now required that the whole world boycott Syria because it has allegedly occupied Lebanon? Are you looking for revenge Mr. Hokayem?

September 8th, 2008, 7:16 am


Zenobia said:

Young cannot seem to imagine that the Hariri assassination is not the number one issue of importance in the middle east.

the irony is that the conservative think tanks in Washington who think more like Michael Young have been far more influential in regards to shaping foreign policy than the few he mentions. What has shifted the sentiment this past year and a half or so towards listening to these more diplomacy oriented views advocating for engagement with Syria is the simple facts of reality on the ground. Nothing positive or successful has come of following the isolate and punish Syria view of young or the neo-conservatives and their time for pushing their agendas has run out as the failures mount higher and higher.

September 8th, 2008, 7:16 am


offended said:

Shai, Young is so biased that Bill O’ Reilly stands like an angel in comparison!

September 8th, 2008, 7:31 am


ghat Albird said:

Michael Young longs for the days when conversations between Lebanese comprised interspered Arabic and French words.

If it is truly quoted that Sarkozy sated that if Iran continuess its work in the nucelar field and Israel decides to nuke them one them the fault will lie with Iran.

Young writes patronisingly as a colonialist if not as a mole for either the CIA or M16. He along with Monsieur Sarkozy are still living in some fantasyland.

September 8th, 2008, 8:41 am


Qifa Nabki said:

Syria Comment’s Beirut correspondent, reporting for duty…

The hummus is delicious, the weather is hot and sticky, and the mood is reconciliatory…

So far I’ve asked three taxi drivers about peace with Israel and they were unanimously supportive. (More on this soon…)

September 8th, 2008, 10:21 am


Qifa Nabki said:

Report: UN to demand Israel pay Lebanon $1 billion

Roee Nahmias

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will demand that Israel pay Lebanon $1 billion in compensation over damages caused during the Jewish state’s 2006 war against Hizbullah, Lebanese media reported Saturday.

According to the report, the sum, based on World Bank appraisals, is aimed at covering the environmental and material damages caused by the Second Lebanon War, to neighboring countries as well.

The fundamental part of the compensation demanded is for the damage caused to the Lebanese coast due to an oil spill following an Israeli bombing of a southern Beirut power plant, which the Lebanese said had caused “an ecological disaster.”

According to the report, Ban plans to submit a report to the United Nations General Assembly at the end of the month, stating that damage Israel caused to the oil reservoir polluted Lebanon’s coast, and that the pollution spread to neighboring countries, especially Syria.

Ban further notes that the UN rehabilitation plan managed to clean some of the oil spill in several areas in northern Lebanon seashores.

The oil spill, which was defined the greatest natural disaster in Lebanon’s history, took place after Israel Air Force planes hit a power plant and caused some 110,000 oil barrels to leak into the Mediterranean Sea.

The report said that the UN wants Israel to compensate the countries harmed by the oil spill and restore the environmental situation along the Lebanon coast. The Jewish state has yet to respond to the demand, despite messages conveyed in August 2007.

About half a year ago, new agencies reported that the German government granted Lebanon 4.5 million euros (about $6.4 million) to help finance environmental projects and damage restoration activities following the war.

September 8th, 2008, 10:23 am


George Y. Krikorian said:

There are a few things which neither Hokayem nor Young (as well as thinkers alike) seem to understand. Whether we like it or not, Syria has its sphere of influence over Lebanon since years and years in history, exactly as Turkey might have it over Syria itself, as an example. Same thing applies to France over Belgium or Monaco, and US over Canada or South America in general. People tend to forget that Geopolitical Hegemony GAME is on every country’s agenda. America cannot neglect Russia’s right to have the upper hand in her surrounding/neighboring countries, the same way China has over Formosa/Taiwan.

Remnants of GAME of NATIONS and political Chessplay are always in the offing.

Bachar’s regime (following his late father’s Hafez-the-Lion) is definitely okayed by big regional and international powers in this Game of Nations, including the U.S., France, Russia and Israel. All Sarkozy is doing is trying to bring back French influence in this part of the world, as it should be, “de concert avec les Americains” (as they say it in French), with the benediction of Israel, while trying to build a kind of French “Napoleonian” political saying (as opposed to the anglo-saxon hegemony). It is a very subtile game which Sarkozy, Assad-son, Sleiman, Russia’s Poutine, Turkey, Israel and even Bush are carefully playing, while Iran is looking.

September 8th, 2008, 10:31 am


counter revisionist said:

Offended, your credibility or lack thereof is quickly apparent in such phrases “is it now required that the whole world boycott Syria because it has allegedly occupied Lebanon”.

September 8th, 2008, 11:52 am


norman said:

Dealing in Damascus

Syria desires to return to its place in the heart of the Arab world. The possibilities of peace with Israel, security for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and development aid make for a good deal for the Syrians. A successful Damascus deal could entice Iran next, argues Rami G. Khouri.

BEIRUT — Regional and international players have been meeting in Damascus for thousands of years, to do one of two things: make war, or make a deal. This week’s four-way summit of the leaders of France, Syria, Qatar and Turkey in Damascus perpetuates the age-old tradition of deal-making — in this case bargaining over strategic assets and positions, rather than fine-thread carpets.

Bargaining to strike a deal in Damascus, whether in the world of commerce or politics, is defined by a few basic rules: the process takes time; it often requires third parties to come in and out of the picture like catalysts in a chemical equation; some gains are not calculated immediately but materialize later; and, a deal is consummated only if all sides obtain their key demands in a win-win situation.

This week’s Damascus meeting testifies dramatically to the changing Middle East, which has become incredibly complicated in view of the many conflicts that are now entangled in a single large regional dynamic. It also points to greater changes ahead, because of Syria’s contradictory position on some core issues related to Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

The most striking common denominator in this gathering comprises the roles of France, Qatar and Turkey as important new diplomatic mediators in the Middle East, filling the large gap left by the United States, which has increasingly marginalized itself by its own mistakes and biases. The United States, Europe — and the UN to a lesser extent — have dominated diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, but they have systematically failed to achieve breakthroughs. The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah summer war reminded everyone of the terrible carnage that will surely occur when simmering tensions erupt into war. The Iraq war revealed how conflict in one area spills over into and destabilizes other parts of the region. Last year’s brief war between the Lebanese army and the Fateh el-Islam radical Salafist group pointed to the new terror threats the entire region faces.

The vacuum created by the United States’ diplomatic auto-demotion is being filled quickly, so that the regional conflicts do not erupt into active warfare. Qatar, Turkey and France are the main players offering to mediate; others also seek roles, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The focus on Damascus now is solely because Syria has its hands in almost every major conflict in the region — Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, for starters. It must be engaged and placated to an extent, to prevent a deterioration that results in widespread war and destruction.

Syria’s reasonable demands can be met, such as regime survival, territorial integrity, a return of its occupied Golan Heights, and no political intrigues or military threats emanating from Israel or Lebanon. Wider goals of dominating Lebanon and Jordan are not reasonable and will be resisted. Many Lebanese understandably remain unsure how far the major international and regional players will go to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, should Syria try to regain control or major influence there.

The two big players watching the Damascus talks are Iran and Hezbollah, and this is where Syria’s position seems untenable. Syria cannot realistically claim it is interested in negotiating permanent peace with Israel while also maintaining its strong alliances with Iran and Hezbollah. A Syrian-Israeli peace is a strong possibility in the coming two years, and if it happens it will trigger Lebanon-Israel peace talks, and major changes in Hezbollah’s strategy and behavior in Lebanon. Syria cannot credibly make peace with Israel while supporting those who resist and fight Israel.

The prevalent international view is that today’s diplomacy aims to separate Syria from Iran. That is unlikely to happen in the short run, but certain to happen in the longer run. The Syrian-Iranian strategic relationship is an unnatural one, and is also untenable for very long in the face of possible Syrian-Israeli ties.

Syria is bargaining to regain its land, and its place in the heart of the Arab world, rather than remain it its quarantine ward. The prospects of peace with Israel, a secure Assad-led regime, normal ties with the major Western and Arab states, and large injections of development aid have all the trappings of a deal that must appeal to Damascus. Syria will work towards this goal slowly and steadily, according to the established rules of bazaar bargaining — without making abrupt and major concessions, or humiliating its many partners. It will change slowly, and also will seek to have others change with it.

The most intriguing thing going on in Damascus is not about Syria alone. It is rather that events in Damascus could be a harbinger of what could soon take place in Iran — where they also know carpets, and when to strike a reasonable deal before the good buys, and your bargaining power, disappear.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

September 8th, 2008, 12:41 pm


Shai said:


Welcome to our part of the world! In’shalla, may you enjoy your near-year in Beirut! Now that we’re so close, why don’t you come spend the weekend with us? 🙂 Amazing, isn’t it? We’re probably 2 hours away from each other by car, but 60 years of history. Time to put the painful distance away.

Be well my friend!

September 8th, 2008, 6:08 pm


norman said:


OK , when are you getting out of the Golan .

September 8th, 2008, 6:12 pm


Shai said:

Dear Norman,

For you, I will get out of my own bedroom, and host you and your family there. I’ve been to the Golan many many times. It’s a beautiful place, and Israel has done amazing things with it. You will be getting back a well-nourished child… For most Israelis, it’ll be a very hard, bitter-sweet day. But it must come, and the sooner the better.

September 8th, 2008, 6:26 pm


Qifa Nabki said:


Thanks. You could always go to the border and wave.

September 8th, 2008, 8:11 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Is that you I see waving the large yellow flag? 24 hours, is that all it took?

September 8th, 2008, 9:04 pm


norman said:

Cafes and shops signal economic opening in Syria; West wonders if political change will follow
By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press Writer
1:57 PM PDT, September 8, 2008
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ At the hip Costa coffeehouse downtown, young Syrians chat over cappuccinos and lattes, laptops propped before them. Shoppers at nearby boutiques try on Prada and Armani designs. Tourists stream in and out of the Four Seasons Hotel.

Syria is transforming itself economically and is starkly different from the drab socialism of just a few years ago. Whether it can change politically at the same pace, and break with its hard-line reputation, remains to be seen.

Already, there are signs of a more flexible Syrian stance in the region. President Bashar Assad has agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon. He has pursued indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey, and says he wants direct talks next year.

In response, the West is slowly changing its 3-year-old policy of isolating Syria and instead trying to engage it. The goal is to get Damascus to move forward on a peace deal with Israel — and even to break its longtime alliance with Iran and militant groups, tempting it with the prospect of increased Western investment.

So far, France has taken the lead: Its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, joined the leaders of Turkey and Qatar in a summit with Assad last week in Damascus.

The United States has hung back, insisting Syria must change even more, particularly by stopping support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other groups labeled by Washington as terrorists.

The U.S. still bars most U.S. exports to and business with Syria, except for oil companies. But few believe Sarkozy would be courting Syria without implicit American backing — and Assad has made clear he hopes a new U.S. administration will be more willing to embrace him.

For now, at least, Syria is following a model resembling China’s: Crack down on political dissent, liberate the economy and try to manage the growing gap between rich and poor.

The openness so far has been confined to the economy. Dozens of government critics are languishing in prison. Bloggers have been jailed for allegedly posting criticism of the government, and Syria restricts access to much of the Internet, including blocking YouTube.

Younger Syrians still don’t dare criticize the government openly. The richer among them are too busy enjoying the consumer boom, and the poorer are struggling just to make ends meet.

Assad is credited with starting the reform process. In 2001, the government issued a five-year economic plan that included laws designed to attract investments. Reforms were slow at first but accelerated after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

These days, with the government encouraging investment, money has flowed in from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Gulf nations, and Turkey. The government has released no figures, but observers estimate foreign investment at nearly $800 million in 2007, up 30 percent from the year before.

That’s small compared with other Arab countries sucking in billions in Gulf investments — but in long-isolated Syria, it has a splashy effect.

The Abu Rummaneh area around Damascus’ Four Seasons Hotel has become a see-and-be-seen hangout. Boutiques have sprouted up selling Western designer clothes and shoes costing up to three times the monthly salary of an average Syrian.

International cafe chains — like Canada’s Cinnzeo and Britain’s Costa — dot Abu Rummaneh. At the trendy Rotana Cafe, customers watch video clips and buy CDs as they eat and drink.

Shoppers swarm three recently opened, Western-style malls. Private banks and businesses line the upscale Mazzeh Boulevard. And if you really want to make an impression, the trendy rooftop Z Bar lounge at the Omayyad Hotel is a must.

“I used to dream about leaving Syria,” said Alaa Derbas, a 21-year-old working in a Damascus shoe shop. “I went to Lebanon whenever I had a chance, but I don’t anymore because now we have everything here.”

“Almost,” he added with a smile.

It’s a far cry from the Damascus of the 1970s and 1980s, when commodities were so scarce that travelers from neighboring Jordan and Lebanon brought bread and toilet paper with them.

“Of course, there is still a lot of bureaucracy and corruption,” said Fuad Shaaban, 28, who recently opened up an electronics business in Damascus. “The money is in the hands of a few at the top. But everything is much easier than it used to be.”

Indeed, many call it the Beirutization of Damascus, referring to the capital of next-door Lebanon and its reputation as the region’s playground.

Syria’s economy still depended heavily on Lebanon during the decades in which Syria dominated its smaller neighbor. But Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005. Now much of the banking, insurance and trade that Syria did in Lebanon has now returned home.

Those developments, along with dwindling production from Syria’s small oil industry, led the government to liberalize and diversify parts of the economy. The influx of more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees into Syria has brought capital but also strained the services.

Many grumble that the transformation has exacerbated social inequality in a country with 12 percent unemployment. Earlier this year, the government gave public employees a 25 percent raise, the fifth increase since Assad took office eight years ago.

At the same time, prices are rising. Diesel fuel, used by middle-class Syrians to heat their homes, has gone up 30 percent in just three years. The prices of fruits and vegetables have doubled. The average Syrian makes about $220 a month.

Analysts say the West may dangle investment to entice Syria to change its ways even more, perhaps with a peace treaty with Israel.

“But at the same time Syria has also been getting by for decades, so it can also continue to scrape by,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst and consulting editor at the English-language Syria Today magazine. “It all depends now on where the Syrian leadership sees the country going.

September 9th, 2008, 12:50 am


norman said:

Thank you Shai,

If you come to the US i have a guest room , you can get my Email and info from Alex,

September 9th, 2008, 12:55 am


Shai said:

Norman, thank you.

QN, we should create an SC-flag, then meet up at the border each waving his. The IDF and HA will be quite baffled… But talk about promotion for SC! (we’ll bring a journalist along, just in case – imagine the photo.)

September 9th, 2008, 3:33 am


Alex said:

A few questions for Michael Young and Emile Hokayem

What makes a leader who meets a Syrian President “naïve” or “an opportunist”?

Hokayem wrote about President Sarkozy: “His warm embrace of Assad displayed a curious mix of cynicism and naivety that has not been a characteristic of French diplomacy until now.”
Young wrote:

“Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here.”

Are all the leaders of the Arab Gulf States naïve opportunists? … Emile is writing in a UAE newspaper. Does he believe that the President of the UAE, who decorated President Assad last month with his country’s highest medal, is a naïve opportunist?

In the mid-to-late Eighties, after Europe, the United States and Canada boycotted Syria for its alleged Role in the Hindawi affair. Does Michael young recall how it was Jacques Chirac himself who first made sure “the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it”?

It was Chirac who told the Washington Post that he thought it possible Israeli intelligence and anti-Assad Syrians could have been involved in the plot.

Three years later, the United States followed Chirac’s lead when secretary of State James Baker and President George Bush Sr. met and coordinated their country’s strategy in the Middle East with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Was Chirac any better than Sarkozy?

Why is Lebanon so special?

Why is the flawed , non-conclusive, fading investigation into the assassination of one Lebanese politician more valuable than peace and stability in the Middle East?

Why should France, Qatar and Turkey live with the possibility of a war with Iran instead of trying to brainstorm with the Syrians in order to find new ideas for solving the dangerous conflict?

Who represents “Lebanon”?

Do you represent Lebanon more than President Suleiman? More than speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri? More than Lebanon’s Shiite community? What makes you more qualified to advice your president not to talk with the Syrians? Are you more experienced? Better informed? less biased?

Why do you keep giving the false impression that you actually speak for “Lebanon”?

What is REALLY driving you?

Is it really true that you are worried about the influence of a “foreign” power (Syria) over Lebanon?
Can you help us find online anything that one of you wrote to express his unease when Saudi appointed Prime Minister Seniora wrote in the Saudi owned newspaper of Asharq Alawsat:

“As for King Abdullah Ben Abd alaziz (King of Saudi Arabia), the grand human being, the grand leader, the noble knight, may god preserve his friendliness and prolong his rule, and allow us to continue enjoying his presence and his work, reward him for all that he provided and participated in, reward him for his struggle and hard work for the success and progress of the kingdom … citadel of all Arabs and Muslims, and his struggle for the benefit of the Arab world and for peace and freedom and Arabism and independence and stability of Lebanon’s democratic system and its successful coexistence.”

September 9th, 2008, 4:04 am


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

If it was important enough for Syria to kill Hariri, why is it not important enough for Lebanese to be interested in Hariri’s fate?

Let me ask you a question Alex: Why is a small area like the Golan the thing stopping peace in the middle east? Don’t the Syrians want to stop another war? Why do they insist on getting it back?

Every one has different things that are important to them. Belitlling the Lebanese concern for the Hariri investigation just shows how “selfish” you are. Or at least that is how you would argue.

September 9th, 2008, 4:35 am


Alex said:


When Young finds it equally “important” to find out who killed all those Lebanese politicians that Geagea is accused of killing, then I will respect his wishes.

If Yong was able to write anything complaining when the Saudis appointed the idiot (Saad Hariri) who speaks Arabic with a heavy Saudi accent, to “lead” Lebanon and to appoint Lebanon’s prime minister who later wrote that famous article that showed us what is the real relationship between him and Saudi Arabia … then I would have taken young’s wishes seriously.

As for the Golan … I explained before that the real reason Syria and Israel did not sign a peace agreement is not merely the Golan, but mostly due to the fact that Syria always pushed Israel and the United States to go for a comprehensive settlement… Israel and the United States made the mistake of considering Syria’s grand plan to be “too many Syrian demands” .. and they felt that “Syria’s price is too high”

Syria wants to fix enough mistakes at once so that a peace treaty will lead to peace.

There is nothing small, or limited to Syria, about it. It is also about what is good for Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq.

September 9th, 2008, 4:46 am


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Gagea spent 11 years in jail. I wouldn’t free him, but the Lebanese decided to do it. The Saudis did not appoint Saad. The Syrians did so by murdering Rafiq because they were afraid of a successful Sunni. Both the Saudi royal family and Chirac took this murder personally as did many Sunnis in Lebanon. Most people do not take it kindly when somebody murders someone close to them but says that it is only business and he is sure they understand. You just do not get it that Asad is a ruthless killer and many people just have a problem accepting that.

On the one hand you admire Asad when he is ruthless and succesful and on the other hand you call people pursuing their interests by talking and convincing (like AIPAC) “selfish”. If you want to convince anyone, how about applying the same standards to everybody? If the Asads were as really smart as you think they are, Syria would not be as backward as it is. Why is it that the Asads are so smart and win all the time, yet the average Syrian constantly loses? Wake up.

September 9th, 2008, 4:56 am


Alex said:


If killing Hariri was that bad, then why Did Israel kill him?

Can you prove that Israel did not kill him?

Why Did Hariri and Chirac need to pay a false witness to testify that Syria did it?


Why don’t we take Saad Hariri and Chirac to trial for what they did?

Why don’t we simply assume Israel killed him? and then continue to base all our analysis on that “Fact”?

And you said “Most people do not take it kindly when somebody murders someone close to them”?

Want to tell me how the parents of the thousands of Palestinian children you killed the past few years feel? .. since now you are sensitive to how people “feel” when you kill someone (never mind killing thousands) close to them.

September 9th, 2008, 5:20 am


Qifa Nabki said:


Yes, that’s me with the yellow flag. I can’t quite believe how wrong I once was … so glad that I’ve been set straight.


With the authority vested in me (as official SC hanger-on, coffee boy for Joshua, masseur for Alex, and gopher for Ehsani), I authorize you to design an SC flag, which I will wave at the next massive political rally. There are none planned as of this moment, but this is Lebanon… surely something is in the works.

In other news, things seem to be settling down here, politically. The downtown district — deserted only a few months ago during the opposition sit-in — is now packed every night. Ramadan has brought thousands of Gulfi tourists, and the hotels and restaurants are full. I had an ice cream this evening just a few meters away from the Parliament building at Sahet al-Nijmeh and there were just a few soldiers standing guard… nothing like the high security detail posted during the past year.

September 9th, 2008, 7:20 pm


Shai said:


You sound like “Our Correspondent in Beirut”… 🙂 Is it nice for you to be back? You mentioned the taxi drivers and (more to come)… I’m interested to hear how the Lebanese view the situation in Israel. And how they see the future of the talks (including their own direct participation, as announced by Bashar a few days ago), the future of HA also vis-a-vis a peace agreement, and Iran’s influence (yes or no) in Lebanon.

September 10th, 2008, 4:18 am


kingcrane jr said:

Does anybody here believe that Sarkozy has principles? After backstabbing the Mayor of Neuilly, his mentor, Charles Pasqua, he went on to backstab Jacques Chirac, his other mentor. It is rumored that, when Sarkozy’s previous spouse went to live with her boyfriend in New York, Sarkozy even had an affair with Claude Chirac, Jacques Chirac’s own daughter… So, yes, he lacks principles completely.

Anyway, the whole point is: this summit could have been more efficient had it included Lebanon’s head of state, Michel Sleimane, and Iran’s head of state (the real one, Ali Khamenei, but the man is reclusive and does not travel at all nowadays).

At the summit, Sarkozy was the intruder… and, in the post-neo-con era, he needed Bashar Assad far more than Bashar Asasd needed him. So all these words about Sarkozy visiting Syria being a favor to Assad are just… hilarious. Syria’s favorite economic partners do not include France and Syria’s favorite political partners do not include France either; this will not change after this summit.

But France remains fascinating for us French-educated Levantine Syro-Lebanese and Lebano-Syrians, a little bit in the way the smell of the madeleines (not the nasty ones that you get at Starbucks, but the real ones that you would get at the local baker shops in Paris) brought back vivid memories of an enchanted chilhood to the grown up Marcel Proust… May be it was fascination with France that convinced Bashar Assad to have a summit that includes an outsider like Sarkozy.

September 10th, 2008, 3:28 pm


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