WASHINGTON—The assassination Tuesday of a prominent Lebanese Christian politician in Beirut deepens President Bush's dilemma over what to do about Syria, which is widely believed to be helping foment Lebanon's growing unrest.
Bush denounced the killing of Lebanese Cabinet member Pierre Gemayel. But he appears to have little direct leverage to stem the deterioration in Lebanon, which until this summer had been a rare bright spot in the White House's campaign to encourage Middle East democracy.
Despite his unimpressive military and diminutive economy, Syria's authoritarian president, Bashar Assad, has proven adept at causing major grief for the United States in next-door Iraq and Lebanon, as well as hosting a number of Palestinian terrorist groups that target Israel.
Bush faces growing calls to open a high-level dialogue with Syria as part of a strategy to salvage the U.S. mission in Iraq. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who co-chairs a bipartisan panel on Iraq that's expected to issue its recommendations next month, has said he favors such talks. So have several leading Democratic lawmakers.
But within the administration, a group of policymakers centered at the White House and in the Pentagon are promoting instead a stepped-up effort to destabilize Assad's regime, according to senior U.S. officials and outside experts who follow Syria.
Last month, officials from the White House's National Security Council held a little-noticed meeting with representatives of a loose coalition of anti-Assad exiles and encouraged them to set up a Washington office.
The group, the National Salvation Front of Syria, includes liberal secularists; former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who broke with Assad last year; and members of Syria's strongest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The White House also has made quiet overtures to Khaddam himself.
Three administration officials said the effort has the support of Saudi Arabia, which has all but cut ties with Assad, and other Sunni Arab nations that fear an expansion of Shiite Muslim political power radiating from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon and potentially into the Persian Gulf. The officials refused to speak on the record because covert intelligence programs are involved.
The killing of Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria and its allies in Hezbollah, is likely to strengthen those who oppose negotiations with Assad, the U.S. officials and experts said.
No clues emerged Tuesday as to who was behind Gemayel's death. But U.S. officials from Bush on down virtually pointed the finger at Syria, which is believed to be behind a series of killings that began with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine's Day 2005.
"The (White House) crowd is winning on this one. And there's going to be real trench warfare in the administration on which way to go," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
"Certainly, this will have a chilling effect on people who think you can reach out to the Syrians, and (that) they are amenable to compromise," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal government debates.
Even before Gemayel's killing, the Bush administration had shown even less appetite for dialogue with Syria than it has with its other regional nemesis, Iran.
David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that talks with Iran on the subject of stabilizing Iraq are a possibility.
But as for Syria, Satterfield said, "we do not believe that the issue involving Syria's negative behaviors towards Iraq, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Iran or Palestinian radical groups is a question of lack of dialogue or lack of engagement."
Yet the consequences of not talking could be high.
Assad, pre-empting the U.S. debate, made his own move Monday and sent his foreign minister to Baghdad to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq after a quarter-century break.
And some analysts fear Bush's democratic project in Lebanon could be the casualty of U.S.-Syrian tensions.
"It's going to tear Lebanon apart," said Landis, who spent 2005 living in Syria. "If Lebanon comes unraveled, it's the last major success story of the administration."
Advocates of destabilizing the Syrian government consider Assad's regime an easier target than Iran's clerical one.
"They think that Syria is low-hanging fruit, and that knocking off Assad would help Lebanon and Israel and send a message to (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad," said a senior military official.
The military official and others, however, expressed skepticism about both the prospects for overthrowing the Assad regime and the supposed benefits that would flow from doing so.
"Iraq hasn't exactly turned out like these guys said it would," said a U.S. intelligence official, who added that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood would probably be the biggest winner if Assad were toppled. Islamist groups, which generally have an anti-American and anti-Israeli bent, have increased their political power in recent years in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.
Following last month's meeting with representatives of the National Salvation Front, the State Department said U.S. officials wouldn't meet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were brutally repressed by Assad's father.
But Landis called the meeting "a first step toward that kind of dialogue. . . . It allows the United States to talk to them, while saying they're not talking to them."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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