Secretary of State Condi Rice's meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem - the first high level contact between Syria and the US in more than 2 years - may be a significant step on the road to better relations between the two countries. At the very least, it signals a willingness on the part of the Bush Administration to explore ways to get the Syrians to stop assisting the Iraqi insurgents by funneling fresh Arab fighters onto the battlefields of Iraq.
Just prior to the meeting in Egypt, a US military spokesman reported that Syria had moved to reduce "the flow of foreign fighters" across its borders into Iraq. This was a prerequisite for any contact to take place between Syria and the US. But one wonders what has changed? Syria has been saying that they have taken steps to close their borders before. The fact that we now "accept" Syria's contention at this time could mean that our State Department has employed a diplomatic device to justify the meeting.
Cynics would argue that this is the way of the world, and that artificial roadblocks to talking with the enemy need to be taken down sometimes with resort to artificial pretense. This meeting between Syria and the US is not taking place in a vacuum. It comes at a crucial time for Lebanon, now entering the 5th month of political gridlock as a result of the Hezb'allah-led opposition's attempt to bring down the elected government of Prime Minister Siniora.
The fallout from that effort has now reached all the way to the United Nations, where the Security Council will take up Lebanon perhaps as early as next week. At issue: Invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that would allow the world body to enforce its will and convene the International Tribunal to try the murderers of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Syrian-backed opposition in Lebanon has blocked the Tribunal at every turn, most recently in the Parliament as Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezb'allah ally, refused to even convene the legislature in order to consider the measure that would have authorized the sitting of the judges.
The reason is simple. High level members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government as well as members of his family have been directly implicated in Hariri's murder, not to mention more than a dozen other politically motivated killings. Some observers believe the reason Assad is fighting tooth and nail to prevent the Tribunal because he rightly sees it as a mortal threat. The Syrian President is part of a small clique of Alawite Muslims who, with a few Sunni allies, have governed Syria for 40 years. If several of his closest advisors and family members were to be tried and convicted, it could knock the legs out from underneath this clique and lead to the President's downfall. At the very least, it would make Syria a pariah state with tough international sanctions a real possibility. Given the precariousness of the Syrian economy, that too could lead to personal disaster for Assad.
So Assad's friends in Lebanon have obliged him by paralyzing the government, setting up a protest camp in front of the government building that serves the dual purpose of putting pressure on Siniora while bringing most of the economic activity in downtown Beirut to a virtual standstill. It has also raised the specter of civil war - something nobody claims they want, but that appears almost inevitable at times.
Every effort at reconciliation by the majority has been rebuffed by Hezb'allah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It would appear only complete capitulation by Siniora to the opposition demands regarding cabinet representation (which would effectively kill the Tribunal) would satisfy Nasrallah. And this, Siniora cannot do without his coalition collapsing.
And now 6 months into this stalemate, Syria and the US appear ready to hold serious talks about stabilizing Iraq. The problem for the US is relatively straightforward; there is precious little we can offer Syria in the way of compensation for their assistance in tamping down the violence. Syria would dearly love the US to put pressure on Israel to make a deal on the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 War. This will never happen - at least as long as George Bush is President. Too many Israelis are still alive who remember Syrian gun emplacements on those heights firing indiscriminately and without warning into the valleys below, killing civilians and terrorizing the population. And Bush would never ask any Israeli leader to risk going back to those days by handing the Heights back to Syria.
We could facilitate peace talks between Israel and Syria. But Assad has made it clear that issues involving the Palestinians must be settled first before there could be formal peace negotiations. And given the confused, violent, and contradictory situation in the territories, it doesn't seem likely that there will be movement on that score any time soon.
Trade and commercial concessions would be welcome but would hardly amount to much. Syria doesn't produce much of anything the west wants while the country is too poor to afford much of anything the west produces.
Realistically, about the only other enticement we could offer Syria that would possibly interest them would involve Lebanon. US support for the Siniora government has been unwavering. Our commitment to seeing the Tribunal sit and mete out justice has been total. We have urged our allies in the area - especially the Saudis - to play an active and positive role in trying to resolve the political stalemate in Lebanon, something that King Abdullah has done with great skill and unflagging energy.
So what could we possibly offer Syria on Lebanon without selling them down the river?
This question has been on the minds of many Lebanese as several factors loom as possible goads to push US policy toward making some kind of deal on Lebanon with the Syrians.
First and foremost is time. The US military commitment to pacifying Iraq is now hostage to the 2008 Presidential election. The closer the election gets, the more likely that the Democrats' plan for a withdrawal of combat troops will attract more and more support from Republicans, peeling away enough skittish Bush supporters concerned about their own re-election chances that any veto by the President could be overridden.
To forestall that possibility, some kind of bargain on Lebanon with Syria could be in the offing. Syria has a lot to offer Washington.
Some of the insurgents in Iraq are being directed and funded by Saddam loyalists safely operating in Syria. Over the last few years, Syria has handed over several high ranking former members of Saddam's security services. But it is believed that many more are still in hiding, funneling money and arms to some of the insurgents. Assad could be convinced to give the rest up for a price. Given the weakness and inexperience of the Iraqi military, Assad's efforts on the border could spell the difference between success and failure as the surge strategy unfolds in Baghdad and the western Anbar Province.
Given these and other factors, what could we possibly offer President Assad on Lebanon that would be the basis for some kind of deal?
The answer is not much. At the United Nations, the Russians - Syria's ally - have been grumbling that Lebanon should be able to deal with its own problems and not always look to the UN to bail them out. In order to bring the Russians on board, it may be necessary to compromise on the Tribunal in some small way. But any major changes in the makeup of the Tribunal, its mandate, rules of evidence, or even whom it may indict will be vigorously opposed by both the French and the United States. It seems improbable that we would make a deal with Assad on the Tribunal even if it would help bring the violence down in Iraq.
The same goes for any other issue that Assad would be willing to deal on with regard to Lebanon, including the future influence of Syria in that country and territorial and economic issues. There may be some small, ancillary matters that we could agree on - perhaps a recognition of Syrian "interest" in Lebanon. But anything that would smack of reestablishing Syrian hegemony over the tiny country would be a non-starter.
This is what I hope anyway. And it is what the Lebanese expect. But many Lebanese remember what they consider the abandonment of their country by the United States at the time the Taif Accords ending the civil war that were signed in 1989. At that time, Secretary of State James Baker fully backed the agreement even though it legitimized Syrian occupation and dominance in Lebanon. Many considered our support at that time as a sell out.
But this is a different world, a different Lebanon. Despite our need for Syria to play a constructive role in Iraq, it won't come at the expense of Lebanese democracy or the Lebanese people who are struggling to throw off the yoke of decades of bloody civil war and humiliating occupation. We must make this absolutely clear to Assad's Syria and disabuse him of any notion that we would sell out our friends in order to reach some kind of agreement that would nominally affect the battlefield in Iraq.
Anything less would betray our values as well as the Lebanese people.