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Diplomatic roads lead to Damascus

by Asia Times Online Thursday, Jul. 27, 2006 at 7:23 PM

"Israel is losing this war," said Ralph Peters, a staunch pro-Israel columnist and military expert with the neo-conservative New York Post. "Israeli miscalculations have left Hezbollah alive and kicking."

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Mocked just months ago as a fool and a lightweight compared with his legendarily shrewd father, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears increasingly to have become the "go-to guy" in resolving the two-week-old war between Hezbollah and Israel.

While neo-conservatives and other hardliners in the administration of US President George W Bush ruled out any thought of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's traveling to Syria - or of even inviting its officials to attend Wednesday's multilateral conference on Lebanon in Rome - the notion that Washington will have to deal with Damascus is gaining steam, even among some influential hawks.

"Come back, Bashar ..." was the headline of a column by Edward Luttwak in the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal's editorial page, in which he argued that Damascus should be invited back into Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah, even if that meant the "recognition of Syrian suzerainty" over its smaller neighbor.

"Let's be friends with Syria" was the title of a second article appearing in the right-wing National Review by contributing editor James Robbins on Monday, in which he, too, argued for a rapprochement with Damascus as part of a "new international alignment in the Middle East" of Sunni-led states against Iran.

"Syria is the linchpin of the equation," he wrote. "Bashar Assad should be offered the same deal as [Libyan leader] Muammar Gaddafi - basically stop doing things that annoy us, get rid of your [weapons of mass destruction] and missile programs and you can be our friend. And it is good to be our friend, particularly if you are a dictator seeking to avoid regime change."

That Syria will indeed prove pivotal to resolving the ongoing violence one way or another has become increasingly accepted in the US over the past week as it became apparent that Israel will not come close to achieving its initial war aim of dismantling Hezbollah as a fighting force once and for all.

Not only has the Shi'ite militia proved much stronger and more resourceful than either Israeli or US analysts had anticipated, but its resistance and fighting spirit - coupled with the destructiveness of Israel's offensive - have bolstered its popular support throughout the Arab world and even among some non-Shi'ite groups in Lebanon, according to virtually all independent reporting.

"Israel is losing this war," said Ralph Peters, a staunch pro-Israel columnist and military expert with the neo-conservative New York Post. "Israeli miscalculations have left Hezbollah alive and kicking."

To some hawks like Peters, as well as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, the answer lies in a major Israeli ground invasion to clear out Hezbollah infrastructure and militants from southern Lebanon.

But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, haunted by the disastrous Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000, appears reluctant to consider this option, unless it can be combined with the insertion of a "robust" international force capable of confronting and disarming Hezbollah that would enable Israel to retreat back behind its border.

With Israel unwilling to attack Damascus itself and unable to crush Hezbollah - and the Lebanese army both unable and unwilling to take it on - the only alternative appears to be the intervention of such a "robust" international force that Rice had been pushing before she traveled to the region on Sunday.

But with the US itself unwilling to contribute troops to such a force, most US analysts believe it unlikely that the United Nations or even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is already struggling to meet its current commitments in Afghanistan, can put together an operation that can do much more than what the existing, largely ineffective UN monitoring force (UNIFIL) already does, particularly if a still "alive and kicking" Hezbollah opposes its deployment.

"Another and larger UNIFIL, which would do nothing effective against Hezbollah while freezing the Israeli army in its tracks, would be much worse than useless," said Luttwak.

In that context, the only power capable of curbing Hezbollah, if only by slowing or stopping the transit of equipment from Iran that it needs to sustain itself as a fighting force, is Syria. Indeed, as pointed out by Luttwak, Damascus, as Hezbollah's main ally in Lebanon until it was forced to withdraw its 30,000 troops under international pressure last year, is likely to be the only power capable of persuading Hezbollah to disarm and "follow the political path".

Even before Rice set out for the region, the US administration appears to have understood Syria's pivotal position in bringing the current crisis to an end. But what it has clearly been unable to decide is how best to get Damascus to cooperate.

Some believe that only sticks - and particularly harsh ones - will work.

Hardline neo-conservatives, such as former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, have called for Washington to encourage Israel to carry its war against Hezbollah into Syria - presumably to persuade it to cut off Hezbollah and even, if possible, to realize a long-held dream of theirs - to overthrow Assad's Ba'athist regime.

But that option appears to have been firmly rejected by Olmert, who, like many others in Israel's policy elite, concluded some time ago that Assad was preferable to anyone who might replace him, particularly in light of what has happened in Iraq since the US ousted Saddam Hussein.

"Any political vacuum would almost surely be filled by the same sort of extreme Islamists now embittering the lives of Iraqis," said Aiman Mansour, an analyst at Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Others argue that Syria is in such a strong bargaining position that only carrots, and very big carrots at that, can induce its cooperation. This indeed was the message presented to Bush and Rice by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal at a White House meeting on Saturday in which he argued that weaning Syria from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah was critical to any regional effort - one that already includes US allies Jordan and Egypt - to contain a far more dangerous Iran.

In this view, Washington made a major error last year in insisting, against the advice of the Sunni Arab states, on a precipitous withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and Damascus' diplomatic isolation.

That position is now echoed by a number of other commentators, including some, such as liberal interventionist New York columnist Thomas Friedman, who strongly supported Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" but now argue that Damascus must be recruited for the escalating confrontation with Iran.

"To me, the big strategic chess move is to try to split Syria off from Iran, and bring Damascus back into the Sunni Arab fold. That is the game-changer," wrote Friedman last week. "What would be the Syrian price? I don't know, but I sure think it would be worth finding out."

Luttwak, who has long viewed Iran as the greatest threat faced by Israel and the US, believes the price will be steep - including, of course, "recognition of Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon" and thus a major rollback of the Cedar Revolution - but worth it for the sake of Washington's regional strategy.

It might be "tremendously embarrassing" to the Bush administration to agree to such a price, but there is little alternative, he noted.
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"Israel is losing this war" Does the name Custer ring a bell? Thursday, Jul. 27, 2006 at 7:48 PM
"Looks like" is the key here shetizdayen indeebay Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 6:12 AM
spin heard it before Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 6:19 AM
Bugout for the dugout Lord Locksley Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 6:23 AM
"Israel's regular troops are superbly trained in anti-guerilla warfare" whistling past the graveyard Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 6:52 AM
"Does anyone doubt Israel could level this area if they so choose?" it's not their choice Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 7:11 AM
Logical fallacy shetizdayen indeebay Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 7:41 AM
American Taxpayers Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 7:56 AM
"cleansing the Hezbollah scum(sic)" whistling past the graveyard Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 8:02 AM
SchtarkerYid Ironically, Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 8:14 AM
"a good faith gesture" another Zionist lie Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 1:32 PM
Hezbollah gains support in resisting Israeli tryranny Brad Sellars Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 1:59 PM
"Israel wasn't defeated militarily" that's right Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 7:48 PM
Hezbollah versus the 'experts' xymphora Friday, Jul. 28, 2006 at 7:56 PM
More wishful thinking from the Hebron baby-cannibal TW Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 7:43 AM
More tripe from Tee Wdumbya shetizdayen indeebay Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 7:58 AM
More wishful thinking from the Hebron baby-cannibal II TW Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 8:32 AM
Thank you, SJ for the referral Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 8:37 AM
Tee Wdumbya on the bug-eye fast track shetizdayen indeebay Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 9:03 AM
Arab blood is cheap to the racist zionist war pigs sefarad Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 9:08 AM
Mhm, it's just as I said TW Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 9:59 AM
See my previous TW Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 10:08 AM
Yawn, yawwwwwwwwwwwwwn.... shetizdayen indeebay Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 10:16 AM
Israel's long history of abusing the United Nations We love you Lebanon! Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 10:53 AM
Don't forget this one TW Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 12:24 PM
It was deliberate. they've done stuff like this before Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 12:36 PM
More on Israeli terror Real anti-racist Saturday, Jul. 29, 2006 at 8:44 PM
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