Syria is reaping benefits from Annapolis

( AP ) - It's been barely a week since Syria joined the U.S.-sponsored peace conference, but the participation is already paying off for President Bashar Assad.

The Arab world is treating Damascus more warmly, the sharp criticism from Washington has tapered off and Syria is getting credit inside Iraq for a drop in cross-border infiltration of foreign fighters.

Syria has not achieved its long-term goal: a resumption of negotiations with Israel that it hopes will win the return of the Golan Heights, seized by the Jewish state in the 1967 Mideast war. So far, new talks are not being considered.

But on other fronts it has been smoother going for Damascus since the Nov. 27 gathering in Annapolis, Md.

In Lebanon, the army commander approved by Syria nine years ago when it ran Lebanon is edging closer to becoming the new president, after the anti-Syria, U.S.-backed parliamentary majority dropped its candidates and backed him. The about-face, which is expected to preserve Syrian interests, wouldn't have been possible without the thaw in Syrian-U.S. relations.

Analysts say Syria is not off the hook, however.

"The Annapolis conference opened a tight window for Damascus but in return is subjecting her to a series of tests, rather than incentives," Sateh Noureddine wrote over the weekend in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which is seen as close to the pro-Syria opposition.

Syria, meanwhile, stresses that it holds its own interests as a priority.

"We did not go to the conference to satisfy anyone," Suleiman Haddad, head of the Syrian parliament's foreign relations committee, said Monday.

"The conference could have some repercussions which we could see in Lebanon today such as the easing of tensions," he told The Associated Press, but Syria went to Annapolis for the sake of the Golan and in support of collective international action.

"We went out of faith and conviction that peace is the only choice," said Haddad, a former assistant foreign minister.

In any case, the Syrians are reaping the benefits with the breaking of its isolation by Western and Arab nations.

Damascus' relations with America have long been tense over a string of issues - particularly U.S. accusations of Syrian involvement in Lebanon and Iraq and of Syrian human rights abuses. But at Annapolis, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad had warm handshakes and did not hear any of the criticism of the last few years.

Two days later, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Syrian participation showed "they understand that there is another pathway that they can choose to take, a more constructive pathway."

The gathering in Annapolis was widely seen as in part aimed at isolating Iran by rallying moderates in the region behind a new push for Mideast peace. The U.S. has been hoping to drive a wedge between Syria and its longtime ally Iran, which opposed the conference.

Over the weekend, Syria sent Mekdad to Iran to reiterate Damascus' strong ties to Tehran, aiming to contain any strains caused by its participation at Annapolis.

The voices from Syria's neighbor Iraq also are comforting. Damascus is now credited with taking steps to limit the flow of foreign militants into Iraq after years of being accused of allowing them across its border.

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