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Syrian Endgame

BEIRUT -- This week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh with representatives of states having an interest in Iraq. Among the participants will be Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. The gathering comes amid reports that Ms. Rice's State Department wants a breakthrough in relations with Tehran before President Bush's departure from office. Ms. Rice did not rule out meeting with Mr. Mottaki, although Iran's deputy foreign minister subsequently lowered expectations that any negotiations would take place.

Anxiously watching developments is another neighbor of Iraq: Syria. The regime of President Bashar Assad is uncertain as to how an Iranian-American rapprochement might affect its own future. While Syria is a close ally of Iran, the U.S. has been pushing for Damascus's isolation, insisting that Syria must change its behavior in Iraq, in the Palestinian territories, and, most importantly, in Lebanon. But it is in Lebanon that Syria has shown the least inclination to concede anything. That's why the U.S. must use any future conversation with Iran, assuming it goes well, as leverage to consolidate Lebanon's fragile independence.

Syria has two priorities, both of which have contributed to increasing its censure internationally and in the Arab world. The first is regime survival. The Syrians feel threatened by the approaching formation of a tribunal to deal with the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Syria is considered the main suspect in the crime, and in their most recent report, United Nations investigators preparing the legal case lent substantial credence to that assertion.

Up to now the Syrians have successfully pushed their allies in Beirut to block creation of the tribunal through a Lebanese constitutional process. U.N. officials and the five permanent members of the Security Council have indicated that if this continues, the tribunal will be set up under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Even Russia has said it would not veto this.

A second Syrian aim is to re-impose its hegemony over Lebanon: After the Lebanon war ended last summer, Syria encouraged its ally Hezbollah to mount an effective coup against the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. This failed after it led to growing Sunni-Shiite hostility, prompting Iranian and Saudi intervention to prevent an escalation that would have harmed their own interests.

Syria also appears to be trying to abort Lebanon's presidential election later this year, setting the stage for the creation of two rival governments in Beirut. Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal warned against this eventuality. Syria is continuing to supply weapons to Hezbollah, in breach of Security Council Resolution 1701, as well as to other groups, and it still refuses to recognize Lebanese sovereignty, establish an embassy in Beirut, or delineate borders with its neighbor.

Mr. Assad understands that if relations between the U.S. and Iran improve in the coming months, Syria might be left dangling. That's one reason why he is so keen to reassert himself in Lebanon, which gives Syria regional relevance.

Similarly, the Lebanese government and parliamentary majority, which oppose a Syrian return, are wary the U.S. might sell them out on Syria's and Iran's behalf. That's a possibility, but a more likely outcome, given the broad Arab and international opposition to Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs, is that it is Mr. Assad who will have to bend.

The U.S. attitude toward Syria seems to be a bureaucratic compromise within the Bush administration: There are those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and at the National Security Council who mistrust a dialogue with Iran, but the war in Iraq is now too much of a headache to avoid exploring new policies. So Ms. Rice is moving ahead with Iran, hoping it will have positive repercussions in Iraq, even as she covers herself on her right by refusing to indulge Syria.

This is why Syrian officials have frantically been trying to prove their worth in Washington recently by underlining their distance from Tehran and showing goodwill toward peace negotiations with Israel. Mr. Assad realizes that talks between Israel and Syria would make him a choice American partner, buy him valuable breathing space with respect to the Hariri tribunal (for who would want to upset Syria if its president were chatting about peace?), and widen his margin of maneuver against those opposing him in Lebanon.

The idea of dealing with Syria for the sake of a Syrian-Israeli peace has been making some headway in the U.S. The only problem is that its proponents have systematically failed to define credible safeguards to deny a Syrian comeback in Lebanon. There is nothing wrong in principle with engaging Syria, though Mr. Assad has tended to view offers of engagement as a sign of weakness by his interlocutors, therefore a pretext not to surrender anything. But at this juncture the Syrian regime must be made to understand that Lebanon is off the table, once and for all.

There also happens to be the fact that a political murder was committed, and Syrian behavior has not been reassuring in that regard. That's why three conditions must govern any contact with the Assad regime.

First, Syria must prove it accepts the Hariri tribunal by discontinuing efforts to thwart its endorsement in Lebanon. This also means eventually allowing Syrian officials to stand before the tribunal if they are implicated. Until now, Mr. Assad and his lieutenants have said Syrian suspects would only appear before Syrian courts. Second, Syria must respect U.N. resolutions on Lebanon, including Resolutions 1559 and 1701. This means, among other things, ending Syrian destabilization efforts and the arming of Hezbollah and other groups. And third, Damascus must formally accept Lebanese sovereignty and agree to the opening of embassies and a delineation of the border with Lebanon.

While it is by no means clear that the U.S. and Iran would in the current climate agree to move toward some form of engagement, the consequences if they did could substantially alter what happens in the Middle East. Maybe Mr. Assad is gambling on U.S.-Iranian discord, and maybe that gamble will pay off. However, if Iran decides that now is a good time to begin a normalization process with Washington, the Syrian president would be better off accepting that Lebanon is lost for good, and that he can gain much regionally and internationally from that acknowledgment.

Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

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