Secretary of State Colin Powell has a message for leaders in the Middle East: there are new opportunities and they should be taken advantage of.
Now on the first of two trips to the region this month, Powell will initially deliver his message to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and once the handshakes and photo-ops are finished, the Syrian leader can expect to hear in blunt fashion what Powell has been saying in Washington in recent days.
Syria is facing a neighborhood in transition and it now has an opportunity to adapt or suffer the consequences. The first and most obvious change is that there's about to be a new government next door in Baghdad and the close ties Damascus enjoyed with Saddam Hussein no longer will benefit Assad's regime. Syria will lose the revenues – hundreds of millions of dollars – from Iraqi oil, which flowed in a pipeline through Syria but which U.S. forces have now turned off. Future trade is now called into question and Assad will have to decide what concessions he's willing to make to American demands in order to gain much-needed revenues.
Among the Bush administration's priorities is for Assad to close the offices of a number of what Washington calls "terrorist" organizations – Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to name a few. In short, Powell will ask for more cooperation in the war on terrorism. He'll also make clear Washington expects Assad not to allow fleeing Iraqi officials a safe haven or even transit through Syria.
The other change in regional politics Powell will spell out for the Syrian president is the renewed effort the Bush administration and its allies in Europe and at the U.N. are making with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Eventually, Powell will tell Assad, Israel will make peace with Syria and Lebanon, and steps taken now (like preventing Hezbollah from working out of Syria or Lebanon) to make that easier will be talked about.
Assad is not likely to make any immediate concessions to his American visitor, but Powell is really looking for actions in the near future which signal Asad's intentions. At the same time, Powell will bear in mind the Syrian president's promises about the Iraqi oil pipeline made two years ago; promises he failed to keep.
Assad's calculations will have to take into consideration not only the latest turn in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, following goals laid out in the so-called "road map," but also the fact that the Palestinians have new political leadership in the hands of Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen). For the first time in decades, someone besides Yasser Arafat has been empowered to speak for Palestinians. And everyone, most especially Israelis and the Palestinians themselves, is waiting to see if Arafat is willing to take a backseat and truly allow the new prime minister to call the shots.
Powell himself will seek answers to some of these questions when he returns to the region, perhaps in the next ten days. He'll then meet with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as with leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Just as there was a new opportunity for peace following the Gulf War in 1991, there is again a renewed sense of hope for peace and democratic progress in the region following the downfall of Saddam's regime in Iraq, the election of a new Palestinian leader and the publication of the road map for a Palestinian state and peace and security for Israel. Assad of Syria is only the first of many leaders in the region who will have to make decisions based on these changed circumstances.
By Charles Wolfson