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July 23, 2006
Can Syria Be Saved?

The Bush administration may try to rescue Syria from its ties to the Iranians, according to a New York Times report out today, in part by convincing them to quit supporting the Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Condoleezza Rice will meet with the Saudis to attempt such a strategy in the coming days, as the Saudis have just as much eagerness to rid the region of Hezbollah and Iranian influence in general:

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Israel on Sunday, Bush administration officials say they recognize Syria is central to any plans to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, and they are seeking ways to peel Syria away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

In interviews, senior administration officials said they had no plans right now to resume direct talks with the Syrian government. President Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005. Since then, America’s contacts with Damascus have been few, and the administration has imposed an array of sanctions on Syria’s government and banks, and frozen the assets of Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri’s killing.

But officials said this week that they were at the beginning stages of a plan to encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make the case to the Syrians that they must turn against Hezbollah. With the crisis at such a pivotal stage, officials who are involved in the delicate negotiations to end it agreed to speak about their expectations only if they were not quoted by name.

David Sanger and Helene Cooper note that this plan has a lot of obstacles in its path, first and foremost the obvious benefit to Israel. It also may encourage Syria to exercise more hegemony in Lebanon, a trend we do not want to prompt back into existence. Sanger and Cooper do not mention the Golan Heights, a continual source of outrage for the Syrians, who want the land back; the Israelis refuse until Syria stops funding and supporting terrorist groups and comes to terms with Israel.

One obstacle doesn't appear in the Times' analysis, and that will be the question of who makes the decision. At the outbreak of hostilities, Bashar Assad disappeared from public view and policy statements came from Ba'ath Party leadership instead -- a very unsettling development in a dictatorship. That usually indicates a power struggle. Assad did finally emerge last Thursday to issue a call for a cease-fire, a somewhat less aggressive statement than that of the earlier Ba'athist pledge to come to the aid of Hezbollah if the Israelis attacked in force. The Syrians moved a division to the border early on, but have done nothing since.

One could conclude that Assad got pushed aside by a more war-hungry Ba'athist leadership, which then lost face after the Arab League roundly criticized Hezbollah instead of Israel, a singular event in the region's history. Assad may then have taken the reins again to take the more moderate path and come in line with his Arab neighbors, all of whom appeared rather angry with Damascus and Teheran over the eruption of war. If true, then the Saudis and the US have to determine who is running the show in Syria. Is it Assad, or is it a cabal of power brokers in the Party?

The Saudis have their own reasons for assisting the US on this mission. They do not want a pan-Islamism run by a non-Arab nation, and Iran obviously has pushed this confrontation to put itself at the head of the Muslim community. None of the predominantly Sunni governments in the region want a Shi'ite government assuming control of the region, either, as they consider Shi'a to be unstable and messianic, among other less-than-admirable qualities. This conflict predates Israel by more than a millenium; the Zionists take a back seat to this long-running internecine feud.

But can the Saudis and Egyptians convince Syria to cut off Hezbollah? The answer may lie in the fall of Iraq. Iraq had long been the best ally to Syria in the region, with its powerful army and its similar governmental style. The long border shared between the two nations allowed for plenty of resupply to the Assad regime. Even when relations became strained between Baghdad and Damascus, Saddam knew that Syria was the point country against the Israelis and best placed to provide assistance to Palestinian terrorist groups.

Now, however, Syria has no resupply routes, thanks to the bad relations they have with Jordan and Saudi Arabia after Assad aligned himself with Teheran. If Syria gets pulled into a war, he has no reliable lines of communication with those who would arm his forces. Geography will work against Syria in a way that it never has in any previous conflict, and Assad's ties to Iran will keep other Arab nations from doing much to alleviate it.

If Assad is still in power, the Saudis and the Egyptians might -- might -- convince him to let go of Hezbollah. If not, then this meeting will produce nothing of substance.

UPDATE: Be sure to read Dale's information in the comments. He makes some great points about the Allawi Shi'a, a minority, holding power over the Sunni majority, a fact I forgot when I wrote this post. It's the reverse of what we saw in Iraq. However, the two Ba'athist groups were not the blood enemies Dale intimates; after all, Syria ran a lot of banned material into Iraq during the sanctions regime, and the Iraqi Ba'athists have found a home to run their insurgency in Syria.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 23, 2006 5:47 AM

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