Talking to Syria

TALKING TO SYRIA….There are still plenty of nay-sayers, but the chorus calling for Syrian involvement in crafting a Lebanon ceasefire solution now includes Richard Armitage, Warren Christopher, and Mr. Flat World himself, Tom Friedman.

The idea isn’t limited to diplomacy’s backseat drivers. With the notable exception of France (which is trying to seduce Syria’s closest ally, Iran), most EU governments believe the path to peace runs through Damascus. In the same way that the U.S. is the only party that can influence Israel to stop the bombing, they say, then like it or not, Syria is the only actor with the clout ? and the willingness ? to do the same on the other side. European and Arab ministers have been shuttling in and out of Damascus for days now. The Spanish foreign minister met with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday, and his German counterpart ? who spent several days chatting up officials here ? has already laid out the outlines of a deal that could simultaneously end the current conflict, get Syria out of the diplomatic doghouse, and pry it loose from the Iranian death grip.

For their part, the Syrians say they’re ready to play ball. Officials I’ve spoken with here in Damascus say the regime is ready to help convince Hezbollah to sign on to an immediate ceasefire and enter sincere prisoner exchange negotiations that could return the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. They’d also like to return to talks with Israel over a permanent land-for-peace deal. It’s far from a perfect plan ? there’s plenty here that won’t play particularly well in Washington or Jerusalem ? but it’s a decent starting point. Even a growing cadre of Israeli analysts seem to think that now is the moment to draw Syria out of the international isolation it’s endured since the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last year.

But Washington doesn’t want any help from Damascus ? not until the regime fulfills an array of demands (ranging from an Iraq-related wish list to an immediate and public sea change in its chummy relationship with Hezbollah). But not even the regime’s most die-hard opponents think their actions one way or the other will make much difference in Iraq. And even if they wanted to rein in Hezbollah, says Syrian journalist Sami Moubayed, there’s no way any Arab leader could make the sort of statements or take the sort of action Washington is looking for. Take a quick stroll around Damascus these days ? with its swarm of Nasrallah posters and yellow-and-green Hezbollah banners ? and you start to see a bit of what he’s talking about. “The Americans are unable to accept the fact that some things are not under anyone’s control, cannot be under their control,” he says. “The Arab street is behind Hezbollah right now. When Hassan Nasrallah is talking, people are listening.”

Syrian officials say they’ve made too many compromises ? including unacknowledged Iraq assistance ? already. “We have a saying here in Syria ? we have ‘nose.’ Do you know what that means?” Information Minister Mohsen Bilal asked me the other day. “It means we have pride, so that we walk with our faces up, like this” ? he jutted out his chin. “We have tried to work with the Americans. We have tried to talk to them. Our help isn’t good enough for them.” He leaned back in his chair. “If they want to speak now, they will have to come to us.”

It looks like Bilal may be waiting a while. The U.S. embassy here in Damascus remains open, but hasn’t been staffed with a permanent ambassador or senior-level diplomats for months. And the Syrian capital ? long a major stop on the Mideast peacemaking circuit ? was never under consideration for Condoleezza Rice’s recent itinerary. Meanwhile, Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha (you can see his blog here) is still communicating with the White House the only way he can: via forlorn op-eds, like the one that appears in today’s LA Times. (Moustapha has been called the “loneliest ambassador in Washington”: he’s there in case the administration ever decides to talk; so far, U.S. officials remain under strict orders not to speak with him.) “Whether President Bush likes it or not, Syria is a regional power. And Syria will remain a regional power,” Moubayed told me a few days ago. “This conflict can’t be resolved without its help.” The rest of the world seems to be coming around to his point of view. But for the U.S. ? as the crisis enters its fourth week ? the “Syrian option” is still off the table.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation