DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – During eight years as Syria’s president, Bashar Assad has grown more sure in his grip on power — ordering a crackdown on dissent, letting a personality cult bloom around him and opening up the economy after decades of isolation.
Now Assad is eager for a breakthrough in long strained relations with the United States, hoping for U.S. help in boosting a still weak economy and for American mediation in direct peace talks with Israel.
President Barack Obama is sending the highest-level administration officials in four years to Damascus to sound out Assad’s seriousness about dialogue, possibly as soon as Saturday.
They will find a president far different from the one who rose to office in 2000. At the time, Assad was considered a weak successor to his late father — longtime dictator Hafez Assad. During his first years, Bashar Assad avoided the limelight and told Syrians not to display his picture. He was widely thought to be dominated by an old guard of his father’s hard-line loyalists.
Today, the 43-year-old leader exhibits a confident strength. He has constructed an authoritarian regime in which the media treats him as a near divinity, tens of thousands of his pictures are on display and critics are jailed for speaking out.
“Bashar Assad has gradually reduced much of the influence of the old guard without ever having to confront them,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “No one on the outside can gauge his strength, but people in Syria now seem to take him far more seriously.”
Assad has begun to dismantle his father’s socialist legacy. Better relations with the U.S. could bring a new push for economic liberalization, in which Assad has loosened the reins on banking, sought to attract foreign investment, and encouraged tourism and private education.
Downtown Damascus now has trendy boutiques where a pair of shoes sell for twice the nation’s average monthly wage of about $200. Western chain cafes fill up every night with the rich and connected, armed with cellular phones and laptops. Streets are no longer filled with battered 1970s cars, but with the latest models from Japan and Europe.
After the widespread displays of Assad’s images, the most seen picture in Damascus is one showing a brunette lying on her stomach and looking seductively at passers-by from billboards advertising shampoo.
A decade ago, Syrians went to Lebanon to shop and bank, and visitors brought their own toilet paper.
“There is hardly anything that you cannot find in Syria now,” said businessman Samer Ayoub. At his shop in the upscale Abu Romanah district, he sells designer Italian shoes for an average of $300 a pair. “I won’t say business is great, it’s medium,” he said.
Yet beneath the glitz lies an economy with many problems, and Assad may have decided he needs the West to move forward.
Syria’s vital oil exports have been hit hard by lower output and slumping world prices. A persistent drought has forced the country to import wheat and other staples after years of self sufficiency.
Unemployment is officially put at 10 percent but is widely thought to be twice that. Tourism, while growing, is hampered by U.S. economic sanctions that have idled nearly half the national airline’s fleet for lack of spare parts.
Some 30 percent to 40 percent of Syria’s 20 million people are thought to be living in poverty, according to economist and dissident Aref Dalilah, who says a steep rise in the cost of living has not been matched by wage increases.
So far, Syria has managed to scrape through with its own resources and help from wealthy friends like the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar and Iran.
“The economic situation is grave, but it is not horrific,” said Asaad Abboud, editor of the state-owned newspaper al-Thawra. “You can still feed your family with a little amount of money and get your children a school and university education plus medical care free of charge.”
But Rateb Shalah, chairman of Syria’s new stock exchange, said the country’s needs help. “Large-scale projects are needed to boost productivity, create jobs and increase exports,” he said.
Peter Harling, a Damascus-based Syria expert for the International Crisis Group, a research center headquartered in Brussels, said Syrians have greater expectations now.
“Bashar has reached a stage of his rule where he has to show his people what he is capable of achieving, other than simply resisting pressure,” Harling said.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council will try to get an idea of what Assad wants to achieve when they arrive in the Obama administration’s first direct approach to the Syrian president.
The question is how far Assad is willing and able to go to patch things up with the United States, which wants Syria to end its support for Hamas and Hezbollah militants, move away from its alliance with Iran and stop what Washington calls interference in Lebanese affairs.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who met with Assad last month in Damascus, said the Syrian leader is looking past Iran for improved relations with the West and U.S.-allied Arab nations with which it has been at odds.
Kerry cautioned that Syria will “still try to play both sides of the fence for as long as it can,” but said Assad understands his country’s “long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and the West.”
Assad has repeatedly called for the Obama administration to mediate in direct Syrian-Israeli talks — a recognition that he needs U.S. help to reach his top goal of winning the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War. Syria-Israel talks collapsed in 2000. More recently, the two held indirect, Turkish-mediated talks that were inconclusive.
But Israel and the U.S. want Syria to break its ties with Hamas and Hezbollah as part of any peace deal, something Damascus has rejected. Assad also insists he is committed to the alliance with Iran, which has helped Syria economically and increased Syria’s weight in the region.
Still, Assad appears eager for an end to the isolation of his country, in particular American sanctions. He also has been quietly patching up ties with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which became a bitter rival because of Damascus’ links to Persian Iran.