Syria is in the hot seat. You know you’re in trouble when the only person willing to visit is Hugo Chavez. Iraq accuses Syria of not doing enough to prevent suicide bombers from crossing the border and demands that Damascus hand over a pair of ex-Baathists wanted by the Iraqis. Syria could also find itself in hot water if an international court investigating the 2005 murder of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri indicts elements closely associated with the Syrian regime.
Syria appears to be seeking a Libya-style truce with its erstwhile Western enemies (without the reparations), yet it still has not resolved longstanding disagreements with its neighbors—Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq chief among them. Having spent the past week bouncing around Syria, I can say the country appears eager for more outside investment, tourist dollars, and cultural exchanges. Damascus is looking more like Beirut by the day, in terms of escalating prices and fashionable boutiques and nightclubs opening up. Most of the foreigners I’ve met are impressionable young Westerners eager to learn Arabic, not deep-pocketed foreign investors. Damascus is not yet Dubai. Even the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel looked gloomily empty on a recent Friday afternoon, perhaps owing to Ramadan.
But I can’t help agree with the Iraqis that Syria is not doing enough to clamp down on terrorists within their midst. The road between Damascus and Baghdad is a bumpy one. I know, I just got lost there driving back from Palmyra. I bombed through a police security checkpoint by car (accidentally, of course) not far from the Iraq border, and the guard barely lifted a finger. Iraq accuses Syrian border guards of acting in a similar fashion (for what it’s worth, I never passed a single Syrian border agent without a wad of cash exchanging hands illegally between him and my driver). Syria needs to win back the trust of both its neighbors and the West. It is impossible for Washington to repair relations with Damascus until Syria clears its sullied name in the region first.