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Saturday, July 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. may be forced to restore contacts with Syria

Los Angeles Times

DAMASCUS, Syria — As international leaders search for a negotiated end to the violence in Lebanon, there is little doubt that the go-to state is Syria, Hezbollah's powerful ally and perhaps the only Arab state capable of guaranteeing a lasting peace.

But who will go?

The Bush administration's policy of isolating the government of Bashar Assad has left the U.S. with no high-level contacts in Syria. With no U.S. ambassador in Damascus, a strong regimen of economic sanctions in place and a refusal to talk with Syrian leaders, the U.S. is negotiating the most serious Middle East crisis in years through Arab and European intermediaries whose influence is doubtful.

The policy has frustrated some U.S. diplomats and prompted a call in Washington for direct contacts not only with Syria, but possibly with its ally, Iran — the two biggest backers of militant anti-Israel groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Without Assad's intervention, no agreement to end Hezbollah rocket attacks or to safely place a new peacekeeping force into southern Lebanon is possible, say those who advocate opening new lines of communication.

By contrast, an order from Syria to halt weapons and other logistical shipments at the Lebanon border could strangle Hezbollah military operations within weeks, military analysts say.

"Of course Syria has the power to make Hezbollah stop fighting. Because while Hezbollah is to a certain degree independent, it needs a political umbrella, and Syria and Iran are that umbrella," said Redwan Ziadeh, a Damascus-based political analyst.

"In 1998 when Hezbollah was firing rockets into Israel, [former president Bill] Clinton phoned Hafez Assad to stop Hezbollah, to stop the rockets. And Hezbollah stopped the rockets," he said.

In Washington on Friday, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., became the latest prominent foreign policy expert to call for contacts with Syria.

"America's approach to Syria and Iran is inextricably tied to Middle East peace," Hagel said in a speech to the Brookings Institution. "Whether or not they were directly involved in the latest Hezbollah and Hamas aggression in Israel, both countries exert influence in the region in ways that undermine stability and security.

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"Both Damascus and Tehran must hear from America directly," he said.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Sen. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, have each made similar recent public statements.

Within the administration, the prevailing view so far is that Assad has made a strategic decision to ally his nation with Iran and Hezbollah against the United States and that trying to detach Syria from those alliances would be fruitless, said administration sources speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, Bush appeared on Friday to be avoiding any repeat of his earlier criticisms of Syria. When asked what message he had for Syria and Iran, the president offered what seemed to be an invitation to get involved.

"My message to Syria is, you know, become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace," Bush said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair, answering the same question, went further, saying Syria and Iran faced a choice, either to risk increasing confrontation or to "come in and participate as proper and responsible members of the international community."

So far, the U.S. has relied on Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt to try to reach out to Syria.

But with Arab public opinion mounting in favor of Hezbollah and Syria's support for it, those governments have had trouble making a convincing case.

The rising public support for Hezbollah for the first time seems to cross traditional religious and political boundaries, embracing Sunnis, Shiites and secular Arabs. Hezbollah and Iran are largely Shiite; Syria is predominately Sunni, as are the Saudis and Egyptians.

Thus, moderate Arab leaders have begun distancing themselves from the U.S.

Saudi Arabia was stung that a statement it issued early in the crisis criticizing Hezbollah for starting the fighting was used as partial justification for Israel's bombardment. This week, the kingdom adopted a much different tone, with King Abdullah warning that "should the option of peace fail as a result of the Israeli arrogance, only the option of war will remain."

Syrians say that they have little opportunity to act diplomatically while Israel continues to bomb Lebanon.

"The minute the Israelis decide to stop ruining Lebanon, Syria can play a mediating role. But nobody can stick their neck out in such a crisis so long as the Israelis are being so warlike," said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian writer and political commentator.

Syrian officials said this week they are ready to open direct talks with the United States, but appear to be uncertain what the U.S. expects from the relationship — or what it is prepared to deliver in exchange.

"Of course, the Americans always want something from Syria: Sealing the border with Iraq. Closing the offices of the Palestinian groups. Cooling relations with Iran. The problem is they want so many things, but they offer nothing in return," said Nabil Samman, a Damascus-based analyst.

Analysts and officials here said Syria will not proceed with negotiations to end the fighting in Lebanon unless the talks include an opportunity for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Golan Heights — territory Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

Assad also expects guarantees of a continued role for Syria in Lebanon and assurances that Lebanon will not be used as a platform to undermine his own regime, they said.

The fact that Hezbollah has not fired long-range rockets as far as Tel Aviv is evidence that Syria has tied a limited leash on the group, many analysts here said. But that is more likely because Syria wants to avoid a war with Israel than because of any indirect lobbying from the United States, they said.

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