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War in Lebanon: Pros and Cons of Talking with Syria

With the war in Lebanon entering it fifth week, some Middle East specialists and former policymakers are calling for the U.S. administration to talk with Syria about reining in Hezbollah.

Iran and Syria are widely recognized as the major backers of Hezbollah. President Bush blames both countries for aggravating the conflict in Lebanon. He says that U.S. officials have communicated with Damascus, even though Washington withdrew its Ambassador last year to protest both Syria’s alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its purported role in fueling the Iraqi insurgency.

President Bush contends that the response from Damascus “hasn’t been very positive.” But, Israeli journalist Ori Nir of the Forward says he thinks it would be helpful if Washington were to talk directly with Damascus and that, contrary to Israel’s public stance on the matter, some Israeli officials think so, too.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Nir says he has ascertained “for a fact” that Israel asked the United States to use its influence with the Syrian government after the first Israeli soldier was abducted by Palestinians into Gaza and again after two other Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah into Lebanon to bring about an early release. But, says Ori Nir, Washington was unwilling to help, which was “quite a disappointment for Israel.”

But analysts opposed to engaging Syria on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah think the costs of doing so would be too high at a time when they say Syria’s position is “stronger than ever.” And they question why Syria, whose reform movement has been repressed and who – through Hezbollah – is helping to destroy Lebanon, would want to negotiate with the United States.

Opponents of dialogue with Syria also argue that the United States lacks leverage in the region because of “deteriorating conditions in Iraq” and because of Iran’s determination to move forward with its nuclear program, despite the threat of U.N. sanctions. Nonetheless, some journalists in the Arab world maintain that U.S. engagement with Syria would serve the long-term interests of both Western and Middle Eastern governments. Jordanian reporter Rana Sabbagh says that, even before the war in Lebanon began, Jordan was worried about an emerging alliance between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Ms. Sabbagh says there has been an active effort in the past four months to encourage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join other Arab countries in the region that are facing a rising threat from an “Iranian-led axis.”

Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, says Syria is a key player in the Middle East and is linked to those issues that most concern Washington – Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, Iraq, and Iran. And, he says, even though “we can’t predict” what will come out of any discussions with Damascus, it’s “simplistic” not to talk with the most important players in the conflict because that’s just the way “normal diplomacy” works.

Israeli journalist Ori Nir says it’s true that Washington has often been unsuccessful in dealing with Syria, but that doesn’t mean the United States should give up. But, from Washington’s perspective, there are serious complications – for example, the U.N. investigation into Syria’s role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Some former diplomats also suggest that Washington may not yet be ready to revive the overall Middle East peace process, which would eventually involve Syria.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.