For decades, Syria has portrayed itself as the "beating heart of Arab nationalism" - the torchbearer of resistance and defiance to the West. That stance has often put Damascus at odds with other Arab regimes, especially those allied with the United States. But Syria managed to keep a central role in Arab politics.
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration turned its attention to Syria as another candidate for "regime change". The Syrian regime meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel and dominated its smaller neighbour, Lebanon. For a country that is not rich in oil and has little economic clout, Syria derived its power from its strategic position in the Middle East. As the US sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers - especially Saudi Arabia - became hostile to the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and his growing reliance on Iran. Syria was excluded from the Arab "fold".
But the balance of power in the region has shifted in recent months, and Arab governments are once again wooing Syria. Qatar and Egypt, in particular, want to end Syria's isolation and are working to improve Saudi-Syrian relations. Assad enhanced his position in the region by strongly backing Hizbollah in the Lebanese conflict and by agreeing to indirect talks with Israel through Turkish mediators.
Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighbouring countries, and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles.