US may talk to Syria, but not Iran

US courtship of Syria might drive a wedge between Syria and Iran – a welcome result.

One of the most controversial recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) is that the Bush administration should enlist the aid of Iran and Syria to achieve stability in Iraq.

The bipartisan commission of nine men and one woman, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, concede that this would be difficult. But they argue that to resolve conflicts a nation must engage with its enemies.

They recommend that the US engage directly with Iran and Syria under the aegis of a yet-to-be formed "Iraq International Support Group." This would involve Iraq and all the states bordering it, including Iran and Syria; key regional states such as Egypt and the Gulf states; the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union.

The proposal that the US should engage with two of its most contentious adversaries has predictably triggered arguments pro and con in the US political and foreign policy communities.

Those in favor of such a dialogue argue that neither Iran nor Syria should want a disintegrating Iraq that would destabilize the region, and therefore should be open to new US diplomatic persuasion.

Those opposed argue that the US should not negotiate with two nations that are promoting violence in Iraq, support and supply terrorists, have a long history of discord with the US and militancy toward Israel, and one of which (Iran) is presumed to be working to create nuclear weapons.

There is, however, a third option. It is for the US to engage with Syria but not Iran. Syria is meddling in Lebanon, is hostile to Israel, but has occasionally shown itself to be open to constructive discussion.

By contrast, Iran is in the grip of extremist mullahs, who are possibly permitting development of an atomic bomb and supporting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he declares that the Holocaust is a myth, and threatens the obliteration of Israel.

In a sense, the US would be differentiating between two egregious levels of behavior. One, in Syria's case, might be open to some moderating. The other, in the case of Iran, shows little prospect of improvement. Indeed, in the course of the group's analysis, ISG co-chairman James Baker met with a senior Iranian official to discuss Iraq. The ISG report suggests he was told that Iran had no interest in helping the US out of its problems in Iraq.

One positive fallout from courting Syria but keeping Iran at a distance might be the driving of a wedge between the two, and disrupting their alliance against Israel, the US, and proponents of democracy.

The ISG says Syria could help Iraq by controlling the border between the two nations, over which supplies, money, and reinforcements to the insurgents flow with little hindrance.

If Syria's President Bashar al-Assad really wanted to warm ties with the US, he could stop the transshipment of Iranian arms across his country to Hizbullah in Lebanon, and support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories. He could cease his attempts to undermine the democratically elected government of Lebanon and cooperate with investigations of political assassinations in Lebanon, especially those of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel.

Any US negotiation with Syria would have to offer incentives to Syria for reformed behavior, along with warnings of punitive measures, such as travel and economic sanctions, in the event of noncooperation.

One plum that could be offered to Syria would be US support for the return to Syria of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel would likely take a frosty view at present of such a move, given the state of tension in the region. But it did once come close in earlier negotiations to returning the Golan Heights and conceivably might do so again as part of an overall Syrian-Israeli peace agreement.

The ISG concedes that any US engagement with Iran is "problematic." But it notes that Iran did cooperate with the US in Afghanistan and says the US could explore whether that kind of cooperation could be replicated in Iraq.

The huge issue that currently seems to rule out any bilateral US dialogue with Iran is Iran's determination to pursue its nuclear program. The Americans say the Iranians must halt the program as a precondition for talks. The Iranians say the Americans must commit to troop withdrawal from Iraq as a precondition to any dialogue.

So what are the prospects of US dialogue with Syria and Iran recommended by the Baker-Hamilton group? With Iran: for now, out of the question. With Syria: remote but possible.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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