Friday, August 18, 2006

Syrian President Bashar Assad is at a political crossroad. For the moment, he is basking in the glory of Hezbollah’s victory in a monthlong war the Shi’ite militia fought with Israel. Although Syria did not directly partake in active combat operations, Damascus has been time and again accused by the United States, and by Israel, of supporting Hezbollah.

Damascus has allowed Iran to funnel weapons destined for the Shi’ite militia to transit through its territory, such as the 4,000 rockets Hezbollah fired at Israel. And of course the Syrians have been sending Hezbollah some of their own hardware. Yet, all throughout the 33 days of heavy bombardment, Syria, much as the rest of the Arab world, had remained silent.

Now that Hezbollah appears to have emerged victorious from the month of war with Israel — at least in the minds of the Arab world — Syria (and Iran) is jumping on Hezbollah’s coattails.

Mr. Assad wasted no time publicly praising Hezbollah, claiming, “We are the victors.” If there was any past ambiguity regarding Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah, in a speech to the Syrian newspaper association Tuesday Mr. Assad clearly set the record straight: Syria shares Hezbollah’s goals.

The Syrian president will undoubtedly be harshly criticized by Washington for his open support of the Shi’ite militia, and not entirely without justification. But Mr. Assad’s conduct is understandable. For years he has been shunned, ignored and marginalized by the Bush administration, though many Middle East analysts will tell you a comprehensive “sustainable peace” in the Middle East, the kind President Bush wants, is unattainable without Syrian participation.

Whether the administration likes it or not, Syria holds an important piece of the Middle East puzzle. Cease-fires, such as the one decreed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, will solve the problem, but only in the short term. Unless intensive diplomatic efforts follow, chances are the United Nations will within months be voting on yet another resolution calling for a another cease-fire.

The long-term cure to the conflict lies in bringing all parties concerned to the negotiating table. The Middle East crisis will remain unsolved unless there is a peace summit involving all stakeholders in the conflict.

U.S. foreign policy cannot be conducted by the secretary of state talking only to friendly parties. As the sole remaining superpower with direct interests in the Middle East, and as the one country that can influence Israel, it falls to the United States to organize such a peace summit. Anything less will result in a recurrence of hostilities sometime later. And much as the secretary of state said she didn’t want to keep returning to the Middle East, Condoleezza Rice will find herself shuttling back and forth trying to negotiate more cease-fires.

Given Syria’s unequivocal support for Hezbollah, resumed hostilities may well spread to Syria if Israel decides to up the ante next time. In that event, Iran would most likely be dragged into the conflict, given its mutual defense pact with Syria.

As things go, Mr. Assad is at a major crossroad. One road from Damascus will take him deeper into an alliance with Tehran, to continued support of terrorism and to adopting, if possible, a more militant policy.

The other road from Damascus can lead to closer cooperation with Washington and closer ties with the West, but only if the Bush administration opens up to Syria. U.S. policy toward Syria so far has been mostly stick and no carrot. The carrot for Syria can come in many forms: financial, or an offer to join in peace talks.

Now Syria is tempted by Hezbollah’s victory to bank on the Shi’ite militia winnings. That would be shortsighted. If Mr. Assad consults recent history, he will quickly realize Syria’s honeymoon with its allies in Lebanon was always to be short-lived.

When the Christian militias seemed about to be defeated by the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1975-76 civil war, they invited Syria to send troops to bail them out. Syria did so. They joined the Christian militias in battling the Palestinians. Then they refused to leave, quickly ending that relationship.

The Syrians next allied with the Palestinians, but it wasn’t long before the Palestinians clashed with the Syrians. Why should the relationship with Hezbollah be any different in the long run?

Of course, the same question applies to Hezbollah. In the wake of their “victory,” Hezbollah should now act in Lebanon’s interest. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah should put his country’s interest above that of Syria’s or Iran’s.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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