- Bashar al-Assad - Syria
Bashar al-Assad marks 10 years in power
Bashar al-Assad on Saturday marked 10 years as Syrian president, a period that has seen some rapprochement with the West. But his close relationship with Iran continues to cause friction in the volatile Middle East.
AFP - After years of enduring intense international pressure, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has engaged in a process of rapprochement with the West whose results remain unclear.
Assad, who celebrates 10 years in power on Saturday, re-opened a dialogue with Western nations by making concessions on Lebanon, the smaller western neighbour over which Damascus held sway for three decades, analysts said.
That enabled Assad to return to the international scene, as he demonstrated by attending a 2008 reception in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
And relations with the United States began to improve under the presidency of Barack Obama.
The rapprochement continues, but "mistrust remains" because of the close ties that Syria forged with Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
Thus, the Democrat Obama renewed the sanctions that have been in force against Syria since 2004, accusing Damascus of supporting "terrorist" organisations.
And the new US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, still has not arrived at his post because Republican opposition to Obama has blocked his confirmation.
Lebanon remains the keystone of the thaw in relations between Syria and the West.
It "gives a regional depth" to Syria, which continues to maintain "an important influence" there through its allies, Hezbollah, the Christian leader Michel Aoun and the Baath party in Lebanon, Salem said.
In parallel, since December, Assad has twice hosted visits by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had accused Damascus of being behind the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri.
Assad also has maintained his country's traditionally close ties with Iran, ignoring calls by the West to move away from Tehran and closer to Turkey.
Assad follows a "median policy," and is not entirely in the "trenches" of the vehemently anti-Western and anti-Israeli Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Salem said.
Thus, in May 2008 Assad began Turkish-mediated indirect talks with Israel over the Golan Heights, which Israel unilaterally annexed from Syria in 1981, and backs direct negotiations in the long run.
But there is still much do be done to consolidate Syria's opening to the West, and Damascus still "is not out of the eye of the storm," said analyst Riad Kahwaji.
The possibility of a US or Israeli air strike against Iran, which denies accusations it is building a nuclear bomb, raise "question marks" about Syria's position said Kahwaji, who is based in Dubai.
"Would it (Syria) side with its Iranian ally? Could its leaders avoid a war?" questioned Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
Information from American and Israeli sources about the installation by Iran of a radar in Syria to detect a possible attack means that Syria would be "the first target," Kahwaji said.
Moreover, Syrian leaders have not hidden their disappointment over the bleak chances for Middle East peace under US leadership, demonstrated by the stagnant negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"When one does not obtain results, one is weak," Assad said in Argentina earlier this month, during a Latin American tour.
"Our experience with the United States is that they are unable to manage a peace process from the beginning to the end," he said.
At home in Syria, "the political hopes for reforms and democratisation that were raised" by the accession of the young president, who was born in 1965, faded with the imprisonment of several opposition figures, Salem noted.