Today's Reading

"Once you hear what I am about to tell you, you'll probably think of our dinner as the Last Supper," Huby said, displaying his penchant for religious references.

"Then why wait?" I asked. "If a man's life hangs in the balance, as you put it, let's get on with it. There is no one within earshot. Tell me what's on your mind. What's going on?"

Huby gave me an odd look and lifted his glass of Macallan, motioning for me to do the same. "Let's drink to life," he said with a sudden expression of sadness.

We sat in silence for a few minutes sipping our whiskeys until the waiter brought the fish to the table and presented it proudly on a silver platter. Huby nodded approvingly.

"Come on, Huby," I insisted as soon as the waiter had disappeared with the fish. "What is it you want to discuss with me?"

"I suggest we enjoy this delightful dinner now, live in the moment. We can go for a long stroll afterward, and I'll fill you in on all the gory details."

For the rest of the meal, Huby chatted about politics, then moved to one of his favorite topics, the deeper messages and meanings hidden in Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But I was not interested in Huby's musings about Renaissance symbolism and Freemasons. When we finished our meal, Huby ordered us each a cognac. From past experience I knew that for Huby there was no such thing as just one cognac; it would be a while before we left for our walk.

"Tell me, Daniel," Huby said after the waiter served our drinks, "are you still engaged in the Syrian conflict?"

I hadn't seen that one coming. My surprise must have been apparent, because Huby immediately added, "Don't worry, I don't really know what exactly you are doing there. When we first met a couple of years ago, you told me a little bit about your political development work in the Gulf and some other initiatives in the Middle East. I asked Jacques what you have been up to these days, but you know our discreet friend Jacques—silent as the grave, so I haven't been able to squeeze any information out of him. But I did hear that you've recently been busy in the Middle East—you know, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria."

If his clarification had been intended to reassure me, it had the opposite effect. I had never told Huby about my work with a European foundation and select individuals in Syria—code-named Project Bistar—toward a negotiated settlement and our efforts to identify and prepare young, promising Syrians for future leadership roles in a postwar Syria.*

* Project Bistar started when our foundation was asked in December 2011 to engage in Syria, where the Arab Spring conflict had exploded in March of that year with tremendous violence after the Ba'athist government of President Bashar al-Assad opened fire on unarmed protesters, which in turn triggered massive demonstrations and the impromptu formation of new opposition groups. The request to assist in mediating between the warring sides had originally come from the government, opposition groups, and organizations within Syrian civil society in the hope of working quietly behind the scenes toward a negotiated settlement and, at a second stage, identifying young, next-generation individuals of the Alawite, Sunni, Druze, and Christian communities with leadership potential. At that time, the Syrian regime was keen to appear open to a negotiated settlement, as its troops and affiliated militias were suffering heavy losses. All that changed with the Russian intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015, when Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah troops turned the Syrian regime's fortunes around, and its officials in Damascus began to deny that they had ever consented to any mediation efforts or negotiations with the "terrorist" opposition.

Sadly, despite the Syrian regime's initial eagerness and support, the rulers' fear of defection ended up far outweighing their desire for national reconciliation and rebuilding, and once we learned that underhanded measures were being taken to prevent this group of future leaders from leaving and participating in our initiative, our foundation had no choice but to end it in late 2013—or risk ridicule and contempt for our gullibility and our willingness to take part in what had amounted to nothing more than a public relations stunt by President Assad and his allies. I was now trying to concentrate on different matters in other parts of the world in the hope that my disappointment in this failed initiative would fade away. Huby's mention of Syria brought it all back with a bang.

"What do you mean?" My throat tightened.

"Well, a friend of mine close to Number One mentioned that you were well connected in that rather nasty part of the world," Huby answered with a smirk.

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