Can Syria really rein in Hizbullah?

Syria said Sunday that it was willing to engage in dialogue with the US to help resolve the war between Hizbullah and Israel.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Since Israel began bombing Lebanon two weeks ago, posters displaying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flanked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah have seemingly doubled on the Damascus street.

Throughout the city, Hizbullah flags flutter out of car windows. Crowds hail Mr. Nasrallah as the only real "zaim," or leader, left in the Arab world willing to directly confront Israel. Not only are Messrs. Assad and Ahmadinejad united in their support for the Lebanese militia, together with Hizbullah they are celebrated as symbols of resistance against the US and Israel .

But while Hizbullah has broad popular support across Syria and the backing of Damascus, the question is how much influence Mr. Assad's regime has – and whether it can leverage it over the Shiite militant group to rein it in and possibly negotiate a cease-fire.

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Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad said Syria was willing to talk with the US to solve the confrontation between Hizbullah and Israel. "Syria is ready for dialogue with the United States based on respect and mutual interests," Mr. Meqdad told Reuters.

He said the solution lies in a cease-fire brokered by international powers to be followed by diplomacy to address Hizbullah's demands, including a prisoner exchange, Reuters reported.

Since the war between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas began after the militia captured two Israeli soldiers on June 12, the US has pointed to Syria as a crucial component in brokering a solution. The US accuses Syria of being a primary sponsor of Hizbullah and of opening its border to arms shipments coming from Iran.

In overheard comments made to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush said that he wanted UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to speak to Assad to "get Syria to get Hizbullah to stop doing this...." On Tuesday, he accused Syria of trying "to get back into Lebanon."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to meet with Arab leaders in Rome this week and to discuss further pressuring Syria and Iran to stop supporting Hizbullah.

But analysts here question how much sway Damascus holds over Hizbullah, also backed by Iran, especially in the wake of Syria's disengagement from Lebanon last year under intense pressure from the US and the international community.

"The amount of influence Syria exerts on Hizbullah is very much overrated in the Western world, especially by the US," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University, and a Hizbullah expert.

"This call on Syria to end its support for Hizbullah and to put pressure on Hizbullah is nothing more than a public relations tool by the US. I cannot understand what influence Syria has now. Syria has been considerably weakened....Hizbullah is the dominant party that exerts control," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb.

Last year, the international community backed UN Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the dismantling of all Lebanese militias – an indirect reference to Hizbullah. In April 2005, Syria withdrew from Lebanon after nearly 30 years of its tutelage.

"Nobody can have 100 percent influence on Hizbullah," says Samir al-Taqi, an adviser to the foreign ministry and the manager of OCS, the Orient Center for Studies, a newly opened think tank based in Damascus. "If Hizbullah is winning and nothing really damaging happens to their forces, who is going to be able to put pressure on Hizbullah?"

According to some analysts, Syria would also need incentives from the US before breaking rank with Hizbullah or using any influence to bring them to the negotiating table.

"Pressure on Syria to rein in Hizbullah will not work unless a regional settlement is on the horizon," says Patrick Seale, an author of a book on the late President Hafez al-Assad and an expert on Syria. "The Syrians have a major grievance and they want to get the Golan back. There is no question of putting pressure on Syria unless there is a quid-pro-quo. The United States has to think of a broader settlement – not simply to disarm Hizbullah."

Syria has long sought negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in 1967. It could also ask for guaranteed regime stability and an end to US support of the country's external opposition.

But, analysts say such concessions are unlikely as Israel and the US have consistently ignored Syrian interest in resuming talks over the Golan. And although Israeli and US leaders have blamed Syria for aiding Hizbullah, Israel has said that it is not interested in expanding the war to Syria.

So far, Assad has remained silent since the outbreak of the war, while other Syrian officials have expressed support for Hizbullah. Sunday, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported that Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said Syria will join the conflict if Israel launches ground operations against Lebanon and comes near Syria.

The Syrians "must be frightened of the extension of the conflict, as everybody is," says Mr. Seale. "The Syrians have expressed strong support for the resistance in general. The key issue here is whose will is to prevail in this part of the world – the US and Israel or local forces like Syria and Lebanon and Iran and their forces in the region."

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