Is the U.S. now ready for talks with Syria?

Washington appears to be backing the Lebanese presidential contender favored by Damascus.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

It's too early to gauge the impact of last week's Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., on its intended goal: Israeli-Palestinian peace. But after the gathering, an emerging American approach to the region may end a crisis in Lebanon and weaken Iran's influence.

Over the weekend, Syria's favored candidate for the unfilled Lebanese presidency, Gen. Michel Suleiman, all but sealed the title. Lebanon's anti-Syrian, US-backed factions dropped their opposition to the general a day after Annapolis. Now, parliament is expected to vote for him on Friday.

Analysts say that the U-turn in Beirut can be traced to signals from the US that it wants to reengage with Syria. They say Washington wants to deal with the country it has maligned as an agent for Iranian designs in the region, including the trafficking of weapons to anti-US/Israel militias in Lebanon and Iraq.

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"There is a new spirit in the Middle East, a real chance for peace. Will Syria be left on the sidelines or give up its support for terror, leave Lebanon alone, support the Iraqi government and make a decision in favor of peace?" Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, told students at Johns Hopkins international studies school in Washington last week.

Many Beirut politicians say the proposal to elect Suleiman, an army commander who took his post in 1998 when Syria controlled Lebanon, as president is the first reaction to a changing American stance toward Syria.

While this may be easing the political deadlock in Lebanon, which has not had a president since Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23 and parliamentarians failed to elect a successor, American allies and anti-Syrian politicians here are saying they look to be losing Washington's support.

"We are not saying they dropped us, but there has been a rearrangement of US priorities after Annapolis," says Ghattas Khoury, a member of the anti-Syrian March 14 bloc, which holds a slim majority in the Lebanese parliament.

"The Americans want a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that means talking to the Syrians," he says.

The March 14 bloc, named for the massive rally that helped drive Syria from the country, declared last week that it had reversed its earlier objection to Suleiman, who is also seen as close to Hizbullah, the militant Shiite group that heads the Lebanese opposition. The announcement, which came a day after Annapolis triggered instant speculation that a deal had been cooked up in Maryland between the US and Syria to end the crisis over the Lebanese presidency and ease months of tension among their the feuding allies in Lebanon.

But the Suleiman proposal was launched more than a week earlier, according to March 14 sources, before Syria even said it would attend Annapolis. But they say it was made in recognition that Washington's tough policy toward Syria was softening, entailing, they say, reduced US backing for March 14.

"It seems that the March 14 leaders looked hard at the options available to them, in light of public opinion and the need to get the presidential vacuum filled as quickly as possible," says a Western diplomat in Beirut.

But the diplomat added that the anti-Syrian block's fears of being "sold out" by the Bush administration in favor of rapprochement with Syria are misplaced. "The Lebanese are persuading themselves and frightening themselves of a monster that does not exist."

Certainly, despite Syria's attendance at Annapolis, US officials are playing down the prospects of renewed dialogue with Damascus, insisting that Syria still needs to change its behavior first. Still, speculation of a deal was perhaps inevitable, given that Syria, scorned by the US under the Bush administration as a state sponsor of terror, was invited to and chose to attend a conference hosted by President Bush.

Beyond that, Moscow began hinting that it hopes to hold a follow-up to Annapolis early next year that would focus on a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement.

Some US officials and experts now say that the change in tone could mean that Syria and Israel end up reaching an agreement on the Golan Heights – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war – and a bilateral peace accord before one is reached in the more complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Syria is being brought back in, including by Washington, and Syria is trying to dress itself up and get on Israel's dance card" to get the Golan Heights back, says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and author of the widely read "Syria Comment" blog.

Some analysts say adding a peace accord with Syria to the ones Israel already has with Egypt and Jordan would provide an important impetus to the ultimate prize of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But they say that will require more proactive and positive encouragement from the US than what has been evident so far.

"It's a good idea to encourage and facilitate Israel and Syria going forward rather quickly to secure a deal," says Patrick Lang, a former Middle East specialist with the Defense Intelligence Agency. "That would set the stage for the real deal between the Israelis and Palestinians." But he adds that it will take an "active role" by the US on the Israel-Syria front. "If we don't do that after the opening provided by [Annapolis], then we have lost an opportunity."

But an Israeli-Syrian deal on the Golan Heights is not Washington's chief interest in pursuing a dialogue with Damascus, analysts say. Instead, Washington's principle motives are to seek Damascus's cooperation on the Israeli-Palestinian track as well as attempting to loosen Syria's close relationship with Iran.

Syria and Iran have been allies since 1980, but their ties strengthened significantly in the past two years as a result of both countries facing increased international pressure and isolation.

"It's very unlikely for the US to break Syria from Iran, maybe perhaps ever, because Syria maintains a balance of power relations with its neighbors and powers in the region and I don't think it would like to put all its eggs in one basket," says Andrew Tabler, editor of the Damascus-based Syria Today monthly.

Tabler says the weak link in the Syria-Iran relationship, which could be exploited by the US, is to provide assistance to promote Syria's moribund economic reform program.

"The Syrians are in a fiscal crunch due to declining oil revenues, and one of the biggest problems they face is corruption and low productivity," he says. "The US has a lot of expertise that it could extend Syria's way. That's a special sweetener that I just don't think the Iranians could ever offer."

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