PARIS (Reuters) - It seems only yesterday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was persona non grata in the West.
But Assad was the star of the international show this weekend, invited by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to attend a Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris with 40 other leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and even to stay on for Bastille Day, a rare mark of French distinction.
Sarkozy showered Assad with praise for helping resolve Lebanon’s political crisis for now, a policy that in any case was to Syria’s advantage, and for starting indirect peace talks with Israel.
The French president also sought Assad’s help in using his good relations with Iran to resolve the stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and with Palestinian Hamas militants to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier in Gaza.
So are things finally looking up for Syria?
“This is a real win-win for Syria,” said one EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Syria was the only country in the region with whom the EU didn’t have a partnership agreement — and now it is the one that gets the special treatment.”
On the international scene, the Assad regime had broken out of its isolation, three years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which many believe was orchestrated from Damascus. Syria denies any involvement.
Mass demonstrations in response to the killing, combined with French and U.S. pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years. Damascus has since shown it can play the spoiler in Beirut without a military presence.
A Qatari-brokered deal that ended the Beirut crisis in May brought Syria back into Lebanon’s political fray, entrenching its allies, led by the Shi’ite group Hezbollah, and giving them veto power in the new government.
On a domestic level, Assad’s autocratic regime is being legitimized by the West despite its crackdown on dissidents.
“The Syrians are trying to have the best of both worlds,” said Philip Robbins, a Middle East expert at Oxford University.
“On the one hand there is no sign they are severing their relations with Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, and on the other hand they have been quite successful in improving their relationship with the French and Western countries.
“Three years ago Bashar was embattled ... he and the family came really under pressure after Hariri’s killing. Now their position has improved,” Robbins said.
More importantly, analysts say, the U.N. tribunal that could prosecute elements of the Syrian leadership its investigators identified as responsible for Hariri’s assassination has been made to look irrelevant.
“It’s a non-subject in French-Syrian relations,” a French official said. “France has nothing to say on the subject — it is the international community through the Security Council that has taken this matter in hand.”
European officials dismissed criticism that Europe has upgraded Assad from pariah status without securing a real change in behavior.
“Syria has been helpful on some of the issues ... particularly on Lebanon. Also there are Syrian-Israeli negotiations, so there is some movement,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.
“If the Israelis have decided to talk to the Syrians, we have no cause to shun them, despite the past and certain unacceptable acts that, believe me, I haven’t forgotten,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Le Parisien daily.
A senior official in Sarkozy’s office added: “The head of Hamas lives in Damascus. To think we can do anything without including the Syrians is to not want to do something.”
While some of the reasons for the thaw in Syrian-Western relations may be obvious, regional analysts suspect there may be other unspoken motivations.
In the background lies the February assassination in Damascus of Imad Moughniyah, the master of Hezbollah’s security network and a prized agent of Iran.
The bomb that ripped through his car and killed this most secret operative — top of the U.S. most wanted list for 25 years before Osama bin Laden emerged as the enemy of Washington — was placed in a high security area of Damascus.
Moughniyah — implicated in hijacking a U.S. airliner, in attacks on U.S., French and Israeli embassies, and in the abduction of Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s — had been underground for two decades, moving mainly between Beirut, Damascus and Tehran. His whereabouts were kept secret even from top Hezbollah officials.
Whoever did it — and most fingers pointed towards Israel — is widely believed to have had top-level inside help.
Although they do not know whether Syria was complicit in the Moughniyah murder, some analysts believe he could have been a way for Syria to ingratiate itself with the West.
“There are many unanswered questions about the killing of Moughniyah. It is difficult to know what did happen. Unless we know, there will be speculation and hypothesis,” Robbins said.
“His (killing) may have built some confidence but there are big strategic issues at stake — peace in the region, the future of Lebanon and the role of Hezbollah and the Iranian posture.”
Additional reporting by Mark John, Paul Taylor, Crispian Balmer and Francois Murphy in Paris; Editing by Paul Taylor and Caroline Drees