After six months of public tension between Syria and the United States, relations have settled down into a more pragmatic mode. At least this is how Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, describes it.
Whether the issue is infiltrators crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, money laundering or claims that Syria is interfering in Lebanon's electoral process, it is being tackled on the ground and in a civil manner.
The changes come as Syria's president, Bashar Assad, is bringing new faces into his cabinet. On Monday, he shook it up with some appointments, including Western-trained professionals and some well-known faces from the past.
Chief among the second group is Ghazi Kanaan, the new interior minister. He was chief of Syrian intelligence operations in Lebanon until two years ago. In that capacity, he was deeply involved in the foreign hostage crisis there during the 1980s, keeping tabs on and contacts with shadowy Iranian-backed organizations and other radical Islamic groups.
Moustapha said that in recent months, "there were accusations" from the American side about Syrian shortcomings, "but we were never provided with factual information we could work with. Was this a serious attempt at combating terrorism?"
U.S. officials read 10-minute lists of demands to Syrian officials, without any dialogue or engagement, even during meetings with Assad, he asserted.
As of a month and a half ago, that changed, according to Moustapha. "Now they have decided to forgo political tension to talk practical steps," he said.
He cited a recent 10-day visit to Syria by a Treasury Department team looking into allegations against the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and continuing consultations among military and security officers on how best to monitor Syria's border with Iraq. Collaboration on setting up border posts and communications equipment is another example, he said.
The new atmosphere began last month, he said, during a visit to Damascus by a U.S. delegation led by William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Also along were officials of the U.S. Army's general command, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Delegation members sat down with many Syrian figures, including Assad.
Last week, Treasury officials met in Washington with Mohammed Hussein, the Syrian finance minister; Duraid Dargham, director general of the Commercial Bank; and Ghassan Rifai, the outgoing economy and commerce minister. The purpose was to respond to pending American questions concerning a report prepared by the Treasury team that visited Syria earlier.
Regardless of the reformist image Syria is struggling to project, this week there were examples of it reverting to type.
Rifai lost his job in Assad's reshuffle on Monday. Insiders suggest that the former World Bank official's businesslike and results-oriented approach may have alienated some old-timers.
And in recent days, police have arrested two Syrian reformers who set up the Syrian Liberal Forum on Sept. 13.
"Syria feels targeted at the moment," Moustapha said.
After the Olympics
Greece is suffering withdrawal after the elation of staging the biggest sporting event in its modern history this summer. "We have the post-Olympic blues," Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis said this week.
Yet, curiously, for someone in his declared condition, Alogoskoufis cannot stop smiling.
"Now, we have to tackle the economic consequences of the Olympics, both good and bad," he said in an interview Monday after addressing the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund over the weekend.
The meeting of construction deadlines and the successful staging of the Games, with all their security measures, boosted the national pride of the Greeks, he said. In the months leading up to the opening ceremonies, his countrymen had to listen to predictions of unfinished venues, chaos and confusion.
The infrastructure put in place for the Olympics will help the country expand tourism and the services industry, attracting more conferences and sporting events to Athens, he said.
But there is also, he said, the whopping bill of 7 billion euros, about $8.6 billion. "The installation of security equipment and setups was a major expense, not originally budgeted when Greece took on the project," Alogoskoufis said.
The government's budget deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product grew from 4.6 percent in 2003 to an estimated 5.3 percent this year. The target is to bring it down to 2.8 percent in 2005.
To do that, expenditures will have to be cut and wage and salary increases will be kept at just above inflation. "We are kind of sobering up now," Alogoskoufis noted.