DAMASCUS, Syria—Long shunned by the Bush administration for its patronage of Hezbollah, its support of terrorism and its hostility to Israel, Syria is suddenly at the center of diplomatic efforts to end the two-week-old war in Lebanon.
U.S. officials want Syria to cut off support for Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group warring with Israel in southern Lebanon. But the Bush administration has rebuffed Syrian appeals for direct talks, relying instead on its allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to pressure a regime that the Bush administration has tried to make a pariah.
Syrian officials and regional experts take a dim view of the U.S. approach, in part because the war in Lebanon has brought political benefit for Syria.
Though weakened and isolated, the regime has gained credibility among Arabs for standing up for Hezbollah while U.S.-friendly leaders in the region have criticized it. In Damascus, posters featuring Syrian President Bashar Assad alongside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are posted in countless shops and car windows.
Assad "has built his legitimacy on attaching himself to the Shiite crescent," said Ayman Abdel Nour, an independent Syrian commentator. "He cannot withdraw from that alliance or he will lose legitimacy in the streets of Syria."
That alliance includes Iran, a relationship that analysts describe as a "marriage of convenience" against Israel and the United States. Secular Syria's friendship with fundamentalist Iran also has been a way for Syria to retain standing in the region.
A once-proud country admired in the Arab world for its steadfast opposition to Israel, Syria has seen its influence wane since the assassination last February of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who threatened to challenge Syria's grip on Lebanon.
High-ranking Syrian officials were implicated in the killing, which led to the end of Syria's three-decade occupation of Lebanon last year.
The Bush administration recalled its ambassador from Damascus following Hariri's death. Since then, "Syrian-American relations, for all intents and purposes, don't exist," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
The policy of isolation gives Assad little incentive to bow to U.S. demands or to separate Syria from Iran, Rabbani said—especially because it appears that Israel doesn't plan to expand its offensive to Syria.
"There is absolutely no reason why any sane Syrian leader would do anything to facilitate U.S. policy toward this conflict," Rabbani said. "They've basically been completely cut off, told to go to hell, then read an ultimatum. There's absolutely nothing in it for them."
Others say Syria has less influence over Hezbollah than is widely assumed. Although it continues to serve as a conduit for weapons and supplies from Iran, Syria lost whatever direct control it had over Hezbollah when it withdrew its military from Lebanon, many believe.
And unlike the Palestinian militant group Hamas—whose leader, Khaled Mashaal, lives in Syria—Hezbollah doesn't maintain offices here.
"No doubt Syria has its relations with Hezbollah, but mainly Hezbollah is a Lebanese party," said Samir al-Taqi, an adviser to Syria's foreign ministry and head of the Orient Center for Studies, a Damascus think tank.
Taqi said persuading Hezbollah to put down its weapons will be difficult because it's been able to sustain a military campaign against the far better-armed Israeli forces for two weeks, which many in the Arab world see as something of a victory.
"There is this impression that Syria can put pressure on Hezbollah, which is not true at all, because when you have a winner you cannot convince him to accept being a loser," Taqi said.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the idea that a regime that supports Hamas and Hezbollah could be a partner in peace.
"The Syrians could have risen to the occasion if they did not have their finger on the trigger on both the Lebanese and Gazan fronts," Olmert said.
Still, the United States could offer the Syrians certain inducements.
It's widely believed that the Bush administration wants a change of regime in Syria, and Assad's unsteady hold on power could be strengthened if U.S. officials agreed to resume direct dealings with him.
But the leak of a U.S. plan to use Saudi Arabia and Egypt to pressure him to turn against Hezbollah could backfire. The plan was reported Sunday in an article in The New York Times that gave the source of the information as administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While it may have been an attempt to pressure Assad, disclosing the strategy seemed more likely to anger the people of Syria and other parts of the Arab world, where resentment over U.S. policies favoring Israel runs high. That would make Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria less willing to cooperate.
Syria's fundamental gripe is the disputed Golan Heights region, which Israel seized in 1967. Addressing that land claim is key to any long-term U.S. engagement with Syria, analysts said.
"As long as Golan is unsettled, Syria will find ways to make trouble for Israel," said David Newton, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who also served in Syria. "And that makes trouble for the United States."
U.S. grievances with Syria go back years: Syria's support for Hezbollah, which began in 1982; its support, dating back to the 1960s, for Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas; its refusal to engage in peace talks with Israel; and its long occupation of Lebanon and meddling in Lebanese politics. More recently, there's another: Syria's lax control of its border with Iraq, which has allowed fighters, weapons and money to be smuggled to anti-government forces in Iraq.
(John Walcott in Washington and Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map