When Bill Nelson, Florida's senior U.S. senator, went to Syria in 2006, the Bush administration practically accused him of aiding and abetting a rogue regime.
"Even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in that region,'' charged then-White House spokesman Tony Snow.
One could argue that the cause of Mideast democracy wasn't exactly helped by President George W. Bush's warm regard for the dictator of Saudi Arabia or his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Libya, ruled for 40 years by Col. Moammar "I'm King of Kings'' Gadhafi. But Syria held a prime place in the pantheon of pariahs because of its close ties to Iran and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.
That was then. Now, Syria is the "it'' place to go in the Mideast precisely because of its close ties to Iran and its support of two groups that have long complicated the quest for Arab-Israeli peace.
"Syria can help in moderating Iranian behavior and (restoring) the peace process,'' Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, told CBS News.
Since President Barack Obama took office on a policy of engaging difficult countries like Syria, a steady stream of U.S. and European officials has descended on Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nelson has not been back since his much-criticized December 2006 visit, but I asked him if he felt vindicated in light of the current surge of interest in Syria.
"Take the focus off me,'' he demurred, "but I knew that if we are ever going to get this Middle East problem going we needed to do some overtures to Syria.''
Among the signs Syria could be a helpful partner have been its back-door talks with Israel. Though they stopped after the recent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, Assad e-mailed the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh that "we still believe we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.''
(If you ever doubted the power of the Internet, consider this: an Arab dictator and a Jewish magazine writer exchanging e-mails.)
Any Israeli-Syrian peace deal hinges on return of the water-rich Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Since then, 20,000 Israelis have moved in with their orchards, malls and resorts, meaning a full pullout would be a long, hard process complicated by the Golan's strategic value to both sides.
But often overlooked is the fact that Syria's border with Israel has been quiet for decades, suggesting that the odds of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal any time soon are much greater than those of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, especially now that hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu is again Israel's prime minister.
Also overlooked is that Syria, for all its faults, is a relatively moderate country that shares the West's dread of Islamic radicalism. (Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad, razed an entire city in 1982 to rid it of extremists.) Syria's support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon would seem to put it in the extremist camp, but Syrian rulers have always viewed those as nationalist movements, not al-Qaida-type global threats.
An Arab country whose 20 million people are mostly Sunni Muslims, Syria would also seem to have little in common with non-Arab, Shiite Iran. More than a love match, theirs is a practical union born of mutual loathing of Iraq in Saddam Hussein's era, a shared commitment to the Palestinian cause and Syria's need for money and weapons after its main benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed.
While those are powerful bonds, "Syria has no natural affinity to Iran,'' Nelson says, predicting that a split between the two "is possible over time. If you got a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, and the United States was part of that deal, that would cool relations with Iran.''
Of course, the ultimate goal is to bring both Iran and Syria into the community of peace-loving nations that shun nuclear armaments. Nelson isn't too hopeful that Iran will stop trying to build an atomic bomb. But as with Syria, he detects subtle shifts in Iran, including its decision to join recent talks on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan.
"There are a lot of things changing in that part of the world,'' Nelson says, "and I think this is the time to make those inroads and try to keep cracking the door open.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]