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A month ago, the world's attention was focused on Damascus. German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis accused the Assad regime of obstructing the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri 11 months ago; the UN Security Council was about to discuss sanctions against Syria; and the US administration raised the level of its verbal assaults to include threats, such as: "All options are on the table."
But Western diplomats dealing with Syrian issue say that the momentum has been lost.
Not only does the pressure on Syria seem to have dissipated, but Bashar Assad is back to business as usual: rockets are being fired at Israel from southern Lebanon by the Syrian-backed Hizbullah; new rules are being set for the continuation of the assassination investigation; and even a newspaper that published an interview with Mehlis in which he claims Syrian authorities were involved in Hariri's murder has been banned in Syria.
Nor is there any change for the better on the Syrian-Iraqi border, from where, the US charges, Syria is allowing insurgents and terrorists to enter Iraq.
WHAT CAUSED the Syrian issue to collapse all at once?
The resignation of Mehlis - and the need not only to find him a replacement but to recruit a whole new team - has put the Hariri investigation on hold. The UN has named a possible candidate to head the investigation - Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz - but it will take weeks before the probe is back on track.
This time-out is beneficial for Assad, as it allows him to create a distraction, a well-known method used by the Syrians in times of trouble. Whenever the world focuses on a problem involving his regime, and begins to mount pressure, the regime ignites a fire on a different front. This week, the residents of northern Israel suffered from this tactic, when forced to spend the night in bomb-shelters after a Hizbullah rocket attack.
But there are other fronts at Syria's disposal: internecine strife in Lebanon, for example, or in Iraq. If one issue or area becomes too hot to handle, Assad can always shift to another. What he gains from such tactics is some more room to maneuver.
So, while the international community is putting pressure on Syria to cooperate with the Hariri investigation - something that could endanger high-ranking officials in the regime - heating up the Israeli-Lebanese border puts Assad in a bargaining position. He can tell the world, in effect, "Ease the pressure and I'll restrain the Hizbullah."
US officials dealing with Syria have acknowledged that "things have slowed down" where pressure on Syria is concerned. But they are convinced this is only a temporary hiatus. Once the new investigation team is in place, they estimate, the world will resume pressure on Assad to make major changes. The model they have in mind is Libya. Once a rogue state that defied the will of the international community on almost every issue from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, Libya eventually reached the conclusion that it could no longer withstand the pressure and chose the path of cooperation and reform.
Some sources in Washington believe Syria will eventually follow suit. They think Assad will at some point make a cold calculation to accept the demands of the international community in order to stay in power.
On the other hand, the current standstill may indicate that Assad is much more difficult to deal with than with any other leader. Evidence of this lies in the fact that both the US and Europe have exhausted practically all their options with him. Military action is not feasible at the moment; nor are economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria considered to be effective. The only thing left is isolating the country and hoping Assad really cares.
THOUGH SYRIA is considered by the US to be less of a problem than Iran, the international community seems to have much more potential leverage on Teheran than it does on Damascus. Iran is vulnerable to economic sanctions, for one thing. And regime-change in Iran - due to strong internal forces of opposition - is actually a possibility. Furthermore, Iran is seen as the region's most pressing threat right now.
Such a lack of options where Assad is concerned is another reason for putting Syria on the back burner with the conflict-management approach: putting out fires when they erupt; applying a degree of constant pressure; and hoping for better days.
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