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The Rehabilitation of Bashar Assad

Sarkozy's trail, in turn, was blazed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced last April that Israel and Syria had been holding indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey. Although a fifth round of those talks was supposed to be held this coming Sunday, more recent reports say those talks-with Assad cognizant that Olmert's days as prime minister are numbered-have been postponed.

Since April, in any case, Assad has played a deft double game of continuing in his old ways while making gestures that keep Olmert and Sarkozy earnestly averring that he's changed. Syria is continuing to host Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations, funnel Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and pursue its own intensive military buildup that includes chemical and biological warfare programs. Only a year ago Israeli planes destroyed an almost-operational, North Korean-supplied Syrian nuclear reactor.

That didn't, of course, stop Assad, while visiting Iran last August, from declaring his strong backing for that country's nuclear program, regarded in Israel as an existential threat. And when Russia invaded Georgia a few days later, Assad was one of very few world leaders to come out in favor, stating that "On this issue we fully support Russia." Just two weeks after the invasion Assad made an arms-buying visit to Moscow, reportedly seeking Iksandar missiles and the SS-300 air defense system, both of which Israel sees as liable to gravely affect its military balance with Syria.

So what, aside from talking-in Israel's case, not even directly-has Assad done to turn Olmert and Sarkozy into his advocates? Not much. He's said some honeyed words in public -- not even so honeyed, telling France-3 television this week that the talks with Israel have brought "the possibility of peace. ... Today, we can only say that we have opened the door to peace."

Assad has also announced his intention to open a Syrian embassy in Beirut after decades in which Syria regarded Lebanon as an artificial, colonial creation and its own province. But this gesture comes at a time when Lebanon is more firmly than ever in the anti-Western, Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah camp.

That's where Qatari Emir Hamad ibn Khalifa comes in. It was he who, in Qatar's capital Doha, hosted the conference last May that granted that camp its long-sought veto power in the Lebanese cabinet and, in effect, ratified the anti-Hezbollah side's military defeat by Hezbollah in skirmishes earlier that month. So the Emir's presence at Thursday's talks in Damascus is hardly a harbinger of moderation.

In other words, Assad's opening of the Beirut embassy is an empty gesture that comes just when Lebanon has lost its status as an independent state and its national unity cabinet has declared its solidarity with Hezbollah in fighting Israel. Such a gesture costs Assad nothing but gains him the accolades of gullible Westerners.

Assad's fear of the Hariri tribunal is intense and offers a ready explanation for his transparent pretenses of conciliatory behavior. He has a record of reverting to talk of peace with Israel when he finds himself in trouble-having done so in 2004, after the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and in 2005, after the U.S., France, and other countries severed ties with him in the wake of the Hariri assassination.

Considering that Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac was viewed as an opportunistic appeaser whereas Sarkozy was billed as a pro-American, hawkish conservative, it's ironic that Chirac was the French president who cut off Assad after the Hariri killing while Sarkozy has been going all-out to rehabilitate him. The lesson is that the belief in "soft power," and denial of the intense hostility to the West in parts of the world, runs very deep in Western Europe and no leader there should realistically be seen as much different.

As for Olmert, his persistent talk of bribing Assad out of the Iranian-led axis with the strategic Golan Heights is sad testament to how deeply the appeasement mentality has taken hold in Israel, too, and how much Israel-to its ongoing peril-has become more typically Western and less its old defiant self in this regard. But with most of the Israeli parliament and public currently opposing a Golan giveaway and Olmert on his way out, it can be hoped that the ensuing political changes will yield a more clear-sighted government and this episode will pass.

Meanwhile Nicolas Sarkozy and Ehud Olmert are doing a disservice both to truth and geopolitical rationality by packaging unrepentant malevolent dictator Bashar Assad as a smiling friend.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Tel Aviv. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/