Syrian President Hafez Assad gave every sign of being one of the first converts to George Bush's new world order. In the late 1980s, even before the collapse of his Soviet benefactors, Assad started cozying up to Washington by shutting down the Damascus headquarters of terrorist Abu Nidal and reining in other terror groups. Then he shocked Arab hard-liners by joining the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein, even suggesting at one point that Israel would be justified in retaliating for Baghdad's Scud missile attacks. Following the war, Syria wasted little time in agreeing to participate in Middle East peace talks. And just last month, Assad gave in to a longstanding U.S. and Israeli demand: giving Syria's 4,000 Jews the freedom to travel and eventually settle quietly overseas.
So why isn't Bush smiling.? For every nod in Washington's direction, Assad seems increasingly determined to turn around and thumb his nose at the United States and the West. In recent weeks he has blasted the Bush administration for blocking arms sales to the Arabs, threatened to break the U.N.-approved air embargo against Libya and hinted at improving relations with Iraq. "Are they [the Americans] working for peace--or surrender?" Assad asked in a March speech after his re-election.
Will the real Assad stand up? He already has-twice. Assad is only doing what he does best: keeping his options open in a volatile region. At the same time, he is sending a signal to Washington that it's payback time for his support for the peace talks and the war against Iraq. But the U.S. State Department last week once again included Syria on its list of nations that sponsor terrorism, which prevents him from receiving U.S. loans, aid or credits. Until that changes, at least, Assad will continue to play one side off the other. Says a Western diplomat in Damascus: "These moves are both a warning to the West not to take Syria for granted and a message to the Arabs that Syria is the protector of the man in the street, no lap dog to Washington."
Another showdown may be coming over Lebanon. Under terms of the U.S.-backed Taif agreement, Syria is to withdraw all of its 40,000 occupation troops to the Bekaa Valley by the end of September. But Syria says that its occupation is the only thing standing in the way of a resumption of civil war. That argument got a boost last week when Lebanon erupted in rioting over the collapse of the country's economy, leading to the resignation of the cabinet. But Bush will be under pressure to hold Syria to its commitment. U.S. acquiescence to the Taif agreement has been exhibit A for critics who charge that the president is moving toward the same kind of marriage of convenience with Assad that Washington had with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Clearly, the postwar honeymoon is over. "It is a cold and calculating arrangement on both sides," said an Asian ambassador in Damascus. There's no one more calculating than the man they call the Sphinx of Damascus.