Damascus Now Seen As Pivotal in Mideast Crisis

Mocked just months ago as a fool and a lightweight compared to his legendarily shrewd father, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears increasingly to have become the "go-to guy" in resolving the two-week-old war between Hezbollah and Israel.

While neoconservatives and other hardliners in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush ruled out any thought of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s traveling to Syria – or of even inviting officials to attend Wednesday’s multilateral conference on Lebanon in Rome – the notion that Washington will have to deal with Damascus is gaining steam, even among some influential hawks.

"Come Back, Bashar…" was the headline of a column (subscribers only) by Edward Luttwak on the neoconservative Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, in which he argued that Damascus should be invited back into Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah, even if that meant the "recognition of Syrian suzerainty" over its smaller neighbor.

"Let’s Be Friends With Syria" was the title of a second article appearing in the right-wing National Review by contributing editor James Robbins Monday, in which he, too, argued for a rapprochement with Damascus as part of a "new international alignment in the Middle East" of Sunni-led states against Iran.

"Syria is the linchpin of the equation," he wrote. "…Bashar Assad should be offered the same deal as [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi – basically stop doing things that annoy us, get rid of your [weapons of mass destruction] and missile programs and you can be our friend. And it is good to be our friend, particularly if you are a dictator seeking to avoid regime change."

That Syria will indeed prove pivotal to resolving the ongoing violence one way or another has become increasingly accepted here over the past week as it became apparent that Israel will not come close to achieving its initial war aim of dismantling Hezbollah as a fighting force once and for all.

Not only has the Shia militia proved much stronger and more resourceful than either Israeli or U.S. analysts had anticipated, but its resistance and fighting spirit – coupled with the destructiveness of Israel’s offensive – have bolstered its popular support throughout the Arab world and even among some non-Shia groups in Lebanon, according to virtually all independent reporting.

"Israel is losing this war," according to ret. Col. Ralph Peters, a staunch pro-Israel columnist and military expert with the neoconservative New York Post. "… Israeli miscalculations have left Hezbollah alive and kicking."

To some hawks like Peters, as well as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, the answer lies in a major Israeli ground invasion to clear out Hezbollah infrastructure and militants from southern Lebanon.

But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, haunted by the disastrous Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, appears reluctant to consider this option, unless it can be combined with the insertion of a "robust" international force capable of confronting and disarming Hezbollah and that would enable Israel to retreat back behind its border.

With Israel unwilling to attack Damascus itself and unable to crush Hezbollah – and the Lebanese army both unable and unwilling to take it on – the only alternative appears to be the intervention of such a "robust" international force that Rice had been pushing before she traveled to the region Sunday.

But, with the U.S. itself unwilling to contribute troops to such a force, most analysts here believe it unlikely that the United Nations or even NATO, which is already struggling to meet its current commitments in Afghanistan, can put together an operation that can do much more than what the existing, largely ineffective UN monitoring force (UNIFIL) already does, particularly if a still "alive-and-kicking" Hezbollah opposes its deployment.

"Another and larger UNIFIL, which would do nothing effective against Hezbollah while freezing the Israeli army in its tracks, would be much worse than useless," according to Luttwak.

In that context, the only power capable of curbing Hezbollah, if only by slowing or stopping the transit of equipment from Iran that it needs to sustain itself as a fighting force, is Syria. Indeed, as pointed out by Luttwak, Damascus, as Hezbollah’s main ally in Lebanon until it was forced to withdraw its 30,000 troops under international pressure last year, is likely to be the only power capable of persuading Hezbollah to disarm and "follow the political path."

Even before Rice set out for the region, the administration appears to have understood Syria’s pivotal position in bringing the current crisis to an end. But what it has clearly been unable to decide is how best to get Damascus to cooperate.

Some believe that only sticks – and particularly harsh ones – will work.

Hardline neoconservatives, such as former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), have called for Washington to encourage Israel to carry its war against Hezbollah into Syria – presumably to persuade it to cut off Hezbollah and even, if possible, to realize a long-held dream of theirs – to overthrow Assad’s Ba’athist regime.

But that option appears to have been firmly rejected by Olmert who, like many others in Israel’s policy elite, concluded some time ago that Assad was preferable to anyone that might replace him, particularly in light of what has happened in Iraq since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein.

"Any political vacuum would almost surely be filled by the same sort of extreme Islamists now embittering the lives of Iraqis," according to Aiman Mansour, an analyst at Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Others argue that Syria is in such a strong bargaining position that only carrots, and very big carrots at that, can induce its cooperation. This indeed was the message presented to Bush and Rice by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal at a White House meeting Saturday in which he argued that weaning Syria from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah was critical to any regional effort – one that already includes U.S. allies Jordan and Egypt – to contain a far more-dangerous Iran.

In this view, Washington made a major error last year in insisting, against the advice of the Sunni Arab states, on a precipitous withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and Damascus’ diplomatic isolation.

That position is now echoed by a number of other commentators, including some, like liberal interventionist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who strongly supported Lebanon’s "Cedar Revolution" but now argue that Damascus must be recruited for the escalating confrontation with Iran.

"To me, the big strategic chess move is to try to split Syria off from Iran, and bring Damascus back into the Sunni Arab fold. That is the game-changer," wrote Friedman last week. "What would be the Syrian price? I don’t know, but I sure think it would be worth finding out."

Luttwak, who has long viewed Iran as the greatest threat faced by Israel and the U.S., believes the price will be steep – including, of course, "recognition of Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon" and thus a major rollback of the Cedar Revolution – but worth it for the sake of Washington’s regional strategy.

It may be "tremendously embarrassing" to the administration to agree to such a price, but there is little alternative, he noted.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.