In Mideast, US diplomacy by proxy
Syria is a key to the crisis, but Secretary Rice, now in the region, delivers US message via others.
Though American officials consistently point to Syria as a key player in the Middle East crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly won't be stopping in Damascus on her current trip to the region.Skip to next paragraph
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She is visiting Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories before attending an international conference in Rome tomorrow. The meeting, bringing together Western and Arab countries, is to explore the avenues that could lead to a cease-fire and creation of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
But it is Syria that Ms. Rice and other US officials say "knows what it needs to do" in this crisis. That means stopping its arms supply line to Hizbullah's military wing, and pressuring Hizbullah's leaders (some of whom live in Damascus) to give up abducted Israeli soldiers and cease the shelling of Israeli territory.
But rather than delivering that message itself to Damascus – an Arab capital that has had no American ambassador for more than a year – Washington is turning to its closest Arab partners to carry its message.
The Bush administration's principle of avoiding the international players it finds most objectionable is facing in the Middle East what may be its biggest test.
It is a diplomatic practice that the Bush administration has used elsewhere, but without clear results thus far, analysts say.
Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a skeptic. "To imagine you could somehow subcontract to someone else the contacts and pressuring with a party you consider crucial but at the same time disagreeable or objectionable is not a good" approach, he says .
He says the Bush administration has used the same diplomatic model in other cases: toward North Korea, "burying any contact in the six-party talks while counting on China to use its influence, even though our interests are not the same" as Beijing's; and toward Iran, "where we've subcontracted diplomacy to the Europeans because we won't talk to Tehran."
Now the United States is saying it won't talk to Syria, "so we're trying to find someone to delegate that to," says Ambassador Freeman. "We have to realize, however, that it is extremely unlikely that even our friends the Saudis would be as vigorous in defining and defending our interests as we would be."
For one thing, it is not clear how much influence other Arab countries have with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And with Arab populations turning rapidly pro-Hizbullah as Lebanese civilian casualties mount, the reluctance of Arab regimes to be labeled as carrying water for Washington only grows.
The US is demonstrating an understanding of the impact of mounting Lebanese casualties by expressing concern and a desire for an end to hostilities – some observers say belatedly. In a surprise stop yesterday in Beirut, Rice said she was "deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring."
US officials accompanying Rice said she would discuss US humanitarian assistance, according to wire reports.
But Rice was also to meet with the pro-Syrian speaker of Lebanon's parliament, Nabih Berri. That meeting is just one of a growing number of indications some experts see as the US reevaluating its refusal so far to talk with Syria.