Last February, at a meeting of the Arab Writers Union, Haitham Satayhi, a member of the Baath Party's regional command team, made headlines by calling for a new relationship between Syrian citizens, and the intelligence services. Promising greater democratic freedom, he announced that the Political Party Law - mooted by the Baath Party in the Syrian legislature of 2005 - was being finalised.

The legislation, once passed, holds out hope for parties not affiliated with the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition of leftist parties that rally around the Baath Party, to function freely.

Satayhi also promised a drive to root out corruption, a campaign initiated by President Bashar Al Assad when he first came to power in 2000.

Days later, the Syrian press reported the sacking and subsequent interrogation of Hassan Makhlouf, the long-time head of the executive branch at the Syrian Customs Department. Makhlouf was relieved from his post early last month by Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari and his assets, along with those of his extended family, seized.

Across the country, governors have been replaced and municipality heads fired on charges of corruption, in recent weeks. Other reforms are underway, in banking, education, and media. Last month, the Gulf University was opened in the northern city of Aleppo, courtesy Bahraini investors, taking the total number of private Syrian universities up to 14.

Fransabank has announced that it will be starting operations in Syria, and this month, after a 50-year hiatus, the Damascus Stock Exchange (DSE) will be back in operation. It will be headed by the independent-minded Rateb Shallah, a doyen of the Syrian business community who for many years had served as president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce (DCC).

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari signalled more openness when he announced that the Syrian-European Union (EU) Partnership Agreement, initialled by the EU and Syria for the second time last December, will be finalised in the first half of 2009.

A new private Syrian satellite channel, Orient TV, has just been launched, and so has a state-run one, Syrian Drama Channel. A woman has just been appointed as chief editor of the state-run daily Tishreen. This follows the appointment of Colette Khoury as the presidential adviser on literary affairs and Najah Al Attar as the Arab world's first woman vice-president. While all of this was happening, the international tribunal for the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri opened in The Hague on March 1.

Opponents of Syria, mainly among the March 14 Coalition in Lebanon, are hoping that the tribunal will incriminate top Syrian officials. But Damascus has made it amply clear that the probe has its full support if it proves to be professional and neutral. It has been at pains to assert that it seeks justice and not revenge, arguing that as the slain premier's number one ally, it has suffered most.

Countries in fear do not initiate political reforms. On the contrary, they enter a shut-down zone. Syria has, however, reconciled with Europe - with no exceptions - and is now turning a new leaf with both the US and Saudi Arabia.

All this has been done without Syria having to change any of its policies. It remains strategically allied to Iran, and to the two main resistance groups in the region, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last week, Syrian Ambassador to the US, Emad Mustafa, had his first meeting with the US State Department since 2005, shortly after Foreign Minister Walid Al Mouallem made a landmark visit to Riyadh. Mustafa met with Jeffrey Feltman, the new acting assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to Lebanon, and described the meeting as "very constructive".

On another front, employees from Boeing are expected to arrive in Damascus today to rehabilitate two Syrian airplanes grounded by the Syrian Accountability Act. Possibilities of purchasing new American Boeings are on the table, confirm sources in Syria, besides 14 European Airbus airplanes.

Cultural rapprochement is also underway between Syria and the US. Last week, the Syrian Choir of Joy, headed by Father Elias Zahlawi, held a groundbreaking concert at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. Over 100 Syrian children performed at the event, wearing Syrian costumes, singing Christian hymns and patriotic songs before taking to an English chorus: Let there be Peace on Earth. This was Syria's message to the US, they said.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.