The time is ripe for the US to engage Syria on Mideast issues

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The evenings are still chilly as shoppers browse Damascus's new up-market shops for the latest European fashions. But in the side streets, vendors are selling crunchy green almonds, and as the seasons turn you can sense a new self- confidence in a regime here that just a year ago was considered by many Middle East observers to be close to collapse.

This self-confidence was evident in the 70-minute interview I conducted with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on Feb. 28. Mr. Mouallem welcomed the fact that the Bush administration has said it will participate in the meeting planned for March 10 in Baghdad, where Washington will have its first direct, high-level contacts for several years with representatives of Syria and Iran. (Iraq, its other neighbors, and the other permanent members of the Security Council will also all be there.)

Until recently, the Bush administration worked hard to isolate both Iran and Syria. In December, President Bush curtly ignored the Iraq Study Group's advice that he engage these two politically significant neighbors of Iraq in an energetic new diplomacy on both Iraq and Arab-Israeli peace. Now, he has shifted toward following one part of that recommendation.

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Mouallem, a very experienced professional diplomat, portrayed Syria as eager to be forthcoming regarding Iraq. He described Washington's decision to take part in the March 10 meeting as, "a partial step in the correct direction." But he said Syria still seeks the US's help in launching "a comprehensive dialogue on regional issues, starting with the Arab-Israeli issue, which is the core issue in the region."

Last November, he made an official visit to Baghdad, and in January, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a state visit to Syria. (Mr. Talabani is one of the many members of the present Iraqi government who found refuge in Damascus during Saddam Hussein's years in power.)

Mouallem said he judges that the first priority in Iraq should be for the Iraqi and US governments to work out and announce a clear timetable for a total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He declined my invitation to specify or estimate the length of this timetable, saying only that it should be linked to the rebuilding of Iraq's own security forces "on a truly national basis."

He added, "No one is thinking about imposing defeat on the US forces. On the contrary, we are trying to find an honorable withdrawal for them."

Mouallem said Syria fears the prolongation of Iraq's current instability for two main reasons. First, instability has sent "more than a million" Iraqis fleeing into Syria, placing a heavy burden on the country's health and education systems. (Many Syrians say the displaced Iraqis have sent rents and property prices skyrocketing, and some resentment has started to build.)

Second, he warned of the risk that the lethal sectarianism that has dogged Iraq might spread further afield. "Why are the Americans not helping to lower the sectarianism in Iraq?" he asked. "We have an enormous fear of sectarian fitna [social breakdown]." He did not spell out that Syria might itself provide fertile ground for sectarian agitators, since there have in the past been signs of serious discontent from ethnic and religious groups that feel excluded from governmental power. He said only, "We in Syria are proud that we are a country of tolerance and coexistence without any discrimination on a religious or ethnic basis."

Mouallem also warned of the dire consequences – for the US and for global stability – that would follow any military attack on Iran. He expressed the hope that neighboring Lebanon could resolve its current political crisis peacefully. And he described Syria as eager to resume the peace process with Israel that was broken off in 2000. He even indicated that, once "comprehensive" peace talks resume with Israel, Syria would not necessarily wait for progress for the Palestinians before moving forward in its own talks with Israel. (A much fuller account of the interview is available at my "Just World News" blog.)

After following Syrian and regional politics for 30-plus years, I judge that the new Syrian self-confidence projected by Mouallem is pretty well founded. In my few days in Damascus, I've also had good discussions with independent analysts and veteran activists in the country's human rights movement and its tiny liberal political opposition. From these people, I learned that the failure of the Bush administration to remake Iraq and the fact that the US now seems so bogged down there have sent a strong signal to all Syrians that their country is no longer at risk of undergoing any American project for coercive regime change. Indeed, it seems that Washington has come close to concluding that it needs Damascus's help if it is to minimize the damage from the imbroglio in Iraq.

For both regime supporters and opponents here, the events in Iraq over the past three years have provided a horrifying object lesson of what can result from any too-rapid, coercive, and ill-studied a push for "democratization" in the Middle East. The dissidents I talked with stressed that the push for democracy must be gradual, and driven by forces internal to the country.

With the Middle East poised on a knife-edge, it seems a good time for Washington to engage seriously with Syria. Let's hope the March 10 meeting leads to an intensification of such engagement.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.

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