Thomas L. Friedman: Syria is the key in solving Middle East crisis

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 1 2006 5:48 p.m. MDT

DAMASCUS, Syria — One wonders what planet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed from, thinking she can build an international force to take charge in south Lebanon without going to Damascus and trying to bring the Syrians on board.

Two Syrian officials made no bones about it when I asked their reaction to deploying such a force, without Syrian backing: Do you remember what happened in 1983, each asked, when the Reagan administration tried to impose an Israeli-designed treaty on Lebanon against Syria's will?

I was there, I remember quite well: Hezbollah, no doubt backed by Syria or Iran, debuted its skills for the world by blowing up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping battalions. This is not a knitting circle here.

Can we get the Syrians on board? Can we split Damascus from Tehran? My conversations here suggest it would be very hard, but worth a shot. It is the most important strategic play we could make, because Syria is the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. But it would take a high-level, rational dialogue. Rice says we can deal with Syria through normal diplomatic channels. Really?

We've withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus and the U.S. diplomats left here are allowed to meet only the Foreign Ministry's director of protocol, whose main job is to ask how you like your Turkish coffee. Syria's ambassador in Washington is similarly isolated.

Is this Syrian regime brutal and ruthless? You bet it is. If the Bush team wants to go to war with Syria, I get that. But the U.S. boycott of Syria is not intimidating Damascus. (Its economy is still growing, thanks to high oil prices.) So we're left with the worst of all worlds — a hostile Syria that is not afraid of us.

We need to get real on Lebanon. Hezbollah made a reckless mistake in provoking Israel. Shame on Hezbollah for bringing this disaster upon Lebanon by embedding its "heroic" forces amid civilians. I understand Israel's vital need to degrade Hezbollah's rocket network. But Hezbollah's militia, which represents 40 percent of Lebanon, the Shiites, can't be wiped out at a price that Israel, or America's Arab allies, can sustain — if at all.

You can't go into an office in the Arab world today without finding an Arab TV station featuring the daily carnage in Lebanon. It's now the Muzak of the Arab world, and it is toxic for us and our Arab friends.

Despite Hezbollah's bravado, Israel has hurt it and its supporters badly, in a way they will never forget. Point made. It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal — a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force to help the Lebanese army secure the border with Israel — before things spin out of control. Whoever goes for a knockout blow will knock themselves out instead.

Will Syria play? Syrians will tell you that their alliance with Tehran is "a marriage of convenience." Syria is a largely secular country, with a Sunni majority. Its leadership is not comfortable with Iranian Shiite ayatollahs. The Iranians know that, which is why "they keep sending high officials here every few weeks to check on the relationship," a diplomat said.

So uncomfortable are many Syrian Sunnis with the Iran relationship that President Bashar Assad has had to allow a surge of Sunni religiosity; last April, a bigger public display was made of Muhammad's birthday than the Syrian Baath Party's anniversary, which had never happened before.

Syrian officials stress that they formed their alliance with Iran because they felt they had no other option. One top Syrian official said the door with the United States was "not closed from Damascus. (But) when you have only one friend, you stay with him all the time. When you have 10 friends, you stay with each one of them."

What do the Syrians want? They say: respect for their security interests in Lebanon and a resumption of negotiations over the Golan. Syria is also providing support for the Sunni Baathists in Iraq. Much as the Bush team wants to, it can't fight everyone at once and get where it needs to go. There will not be a peace force in south Lebanon unless it's backed by Syria. No one will send troops.

I repeat: I don't know if Syria can be brought around, and we certainly can't do it at Lebanon's expense. But you have to try, with real sticks and real carrots. Syria is not going to calm things in Lebanon, or Iraq, just so the Bush team can then focus on regime change in Damascus. As one diplomat here put it to me, "Turkeys don't vote for Thanksgiving."


New York Times News Service.

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