U.S. Plan Seeks to Wedge Syria Away From Iran
Helene Cooper and David Sanger, The New York Times:
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. READ MORE
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.
“We think that the Syrians will listen to their Arab neighbors on this rather than us,’’ a senior official said, “so it’s all a question of how well that can be orchestrated.’’
There are several substantial hurdles to success. The effort risks seeming to encourage Syria to reclaim some of the influence on Lebanon that it lost after its troops were forced to withdraw last year. It is not clear how forcefully Arab countries would push a cause seen to benefit the United States and Israel. Many Middle Eastern analysts are skeptical that a lasting settlement can be achieved without direct talks between Syria and the United States.
The effort begins Sunday afternoon in the Oval Office, where President Bush is to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, and the chief of the Saudi national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington until late last year and often speaks of his deep connections to the Bush family and to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Ms. Rice is delaying her departure to the Middle East until after the meeting, which she is also expected to attend, along with Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser. The session was requested by the Saudis, American officials said.
The expected outcome of the session is unclear. “We don’t know how patient the Saudis will be with the Israeli military action,’’ said a senior official said. “They want to see Hezbollah wiped out, and they’d like to set back the Iranians.”
But in the Arab world, the official added, “they can’t be seen to be doing that too enthusiastically.’’
Several of Mr. Bush’s top aides said the plan was for Mr. Bush and other senior officials to press both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prod Syria into giving up its links with Hezbollah, and with Iran. The administration, aside from its differences with Iran over nuclear programs and with Syria over its role in Lebanon, has also objected to both nations’ behavior toward their common neighbor, Iraq.
“They have to make the point to them that if things go bad in the Mideast, the Iranians are not going to be a reliable lifeline,’’ one of the administration officials said.
Another said, “There is a presumption that the Syrians have more at stake here than the Iranians, and they are more exposed.”
The American officials are calculating that pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan may help to get Syria on board.
But so far, there appears to be little discussion of offering American incentives to the Syrians to abandon Hezbollah, or even to stop arming it. The Bush administration has been deeply reluctant to make such offers, whether it is negotiating with Damascus or with the governments of Iran or North Korea.
Nor did President Bush sound any conciliatory notes in his radio address on Saturday. “For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah and it has helped provide Hezbollah with shipments of Iranian-made weapons,’’ he said. “Iran’s regime has also repeatedly defied the international community with its ambition for nuclear weapons and aid to terrorist groups. Their actions threaten the entire Middle East and stand in the way of resolving the current crisis and bringing lasting peace to this troubled region.”
The State Department lists Syria as a country that sends money to terrorist organizations. Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has spent a lot of time on television in recent days, but he is often described as one of the loneliest ambassadors in Washington.
In the months after Sept. 11, Syria provided important assistance in the campaign against Al Qaeda. But relations soured as American officials complained that Syria did little to crack down on associates of Saddam Hussein who funneled money to the insurgency in Iraq through Syrian banks, or to stop the flow of insurgents across its border to Iraq. The United States imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, and took further measures after Syrian officials were accused of involvement in Mr. Hariri’s assassination.
The idea is to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, which have recently been drawn closer together by standoffs with Washington. Syria and Iran have been formally allied since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, but historically they were suspicious of each other.
“Historically and strategically, they are on opposing sides — the Arabs and the Persians,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview on Thursday. Now, he added, “the only Arab country to ally with Iran is Syria,” a position that has angered Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Syria, like most of the Arab world, is largely Sunni. Iran and Iraq are largely Shiite.
A Western diplomat said Arab leaders had had trouble getting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to come to the telephone when they called to express concern about Hezbollah’s actions.
In 1996, when Israel and Hezbollah were fighting each other and bombs rained down on civilian populations, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent 10 days shuttling between Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem before brokering a cease-fire and an agreement by Israel and Hezbollah to leave civilians out of the fighting.
Ms. Rice has said she has no intention of duplicating Mr. Christopher’s approach. “I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling and it wouldn’t have been clear what I was shuttling to do,” she said Friday. “I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante.”
Rather, the administration’s declared aim is to carry out United Nations Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese Army to southern Lebanon. Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last year, may well balk at efforts to enforce it.
But while analysts say it is possible for the Bush administration and Israel to work out a solution without including Syria in the diplomatic wrangling, it would be difficult. Some Bush administration officials, particularly at the State Department, are pushing to find a way to start talking to Syria again.
Mr. Bush on Saturday telephoned the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to discuss the widening crisis in Lebanon, and pledged the United States would assist the Turkish government as it battled the Kurdish Workers’ Party, the violent separatist movement. Turkey has been mentioned as a potential leader of the proposed United Nations plan to deploy an international force to the region to help cool the violence.