DAMASCUS -Throughout 2008, Syria's efforts to emerge from international isolation left a good impression on the world's diplomatic community, strengthening the hope that what was once described as a "rogue" state is now taking progressive steps on the path to reform. Even so, the year did not start out smoothly for Damascus as the West and its allies are still pointing the finger at Syria for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a car bomb explosion in 2005.
According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Syria has faced criticism because of its support for Hezbollah, a major Lebanese opposition party that has challenged the parliamentary majority.
Since May 2008, however, when Damascus announced that it had entered into indirect peace talks with Israel through the mediation of Turkey, there has been a real shift in Syria's controversial image, which has been that of a "rogue" state suspected of sponsoring terrorism.
So far there have been four rounds of talks, despite the postponement of a fifth round due to the political instability surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following his involvement in a scandal. The new Israeli government, once formed, will decide how to resume the talks.
Xinhua added that Western leaders were enthusiastic about Syria's attempts to get closer; as such, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited President Bashar Al-Assad to attend the Mediterranean Union summit in Paris in July, saying that he commended the "positive role" played by Syria in its diplomatic efforts.
Xinhua also said that analysts praised the Paris visit as a "return to diplomacy" after three years of isolation following the assassination of Hariri. Al-Assad has continued communicating with other European leaders, but the most significant meeting was with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, when both leaders declared the determination of their countries to establish diplomatic relations at an ambassadorial level.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported on Nov. 18 that, since the Mediterranean Union summit was held, Damascus has welcomed a number of senior European officials, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Minister David Miliband, whose visit to Syria in mid-November re-established high-level intelligence relations with Syrian authorities.
The AFP added that Syria said that Miliband, who is the first British Foreign Minister to visit Syria in eight years, can play a "constructive role" in achieving stability in the troubled region.
Relations between Syria and the U.S. are still strained. The deadlock and tension in the relationship between Washington and Damascus increased in 2003 after American forces entered Iraq; and the situation became even tenser following the assassination of Hariri.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria, along with the planned visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, may count as evidence of a return to a better stage of diplomatic relations between the two countries.