Among the most effective "cards" that Syria has ever played is one that it doesn't fully control: Islamic Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, who with Syria's help and Iran's backing are winning their fight against Israel's occupation there.
Syria and Israel are toying with a resumption of peace talks, and any agreement is likely to return the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria for peace. Linked to that would be an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon - where Syria keeps its own controlling force of 35,000 troops.
The steady stream of Israeli casualties in southern Lebanon prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during his election campaign last spring to vow an Israeli withdrawal from there, a commitment that was widely applauded in the Jewish state. But Syria's ability to prevent Hizbullah from continuing attacks remains unclear, especially from "rogue" militants.
"Syria has strategic influence over Hizbullah, but not tactical control," says a senior Western diplomat in Damascus. "That tactical control can be taken by those who want to kibosh a peace agreement."
With Syrian acquiescence, Hizbullah has raised the stakes with regular, deeper strikes against Israeli forces and their local, Israeli-trained and supplied South Lebanon Army militia allies. The message to Israel: This front line is still open, and Damascus is the key to solving it.
"The Syrian interest is to keep the Israeli fingers in the mangle, but not to squeeze too hard," says the diplomat.
Israel has occupied parts of Lebanon since 1978, initially to prevent cross-border attacks from Palestinian guerrillas. In 1985 it created a nine-mile strip in the south it calls its "security zone" to thwart Hizbullah, which had taken up the resistance fight.
Despite denials from Tehran, it is widely believed that Hizbullah for years has received Iranian military equipment via Damascus or the Syria-controlled Beirut airport. Ibrahim Hamidi, of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper in Damascus, likens the relationship to an underwater diver's setup: Iran is Hizbullah's oxygen tank, and Syria its air hose.
"If Syria cuts the tube, there is no more oxygen," says Mr. Hamidi. "How can Iran support Hizbullah without Syria?"
Yet analysts here agree that Hizbullah, by and large, has its own reasons for respecting any peace. They note that since the early 1990s Hizbullah has played a role in mainstream politics and holds seats in the Lebanese parliament.
Iran, too, is widely believed to be ready to follow Syria's lead, to maintain its own close ties to Damascus. Lebanon's Army, which has received official US military support such as used equipment from US drawdown stocks in Europe, has said that it can maintain security in the south if Israel pulls out.
Still, recent rhetoric has sent shivers down the backs of Israeli strategists - as it was most likely intended to do. During a visit to Tehran by Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian officials announced that it would convene an anti-Zionist conference next February.
"The liberation of Jerusalem is our common goal, and we must not allow foreign plots and pressure to divide us," Iran's reformist President Mohamad Khatami was quoted as telling Mr. Nasrallah. Hizbullah was praised for "fighting for ... Arab and Islamic dignity."
Hizbullah, in fact, is arguably the most effective paramilitary outfit in the world, and has been the first Arab force of any type to deliver a sustained, though unconventional, drubbing of the once-revered Israeli Defense Force.
Though observers note that Syria may not able to fine-tune its wishes regarding Hizbullah, and that the guerrillas have enough weaponry on hand to fight for a long period without resupply, Syria's will in Lebanon has been delivered forcefully in the past.
"If Syria gets the deal that gets the Golan, it will be quiet in southern Lebanon," says another Western diplomat.
Difficulties could arise if Israel decided to pull its troops out unilaterally, without a settlement that returned the Golan to Syria. Noting that Hizbullah's actions are Syria's only concrete leverage against Israel, some suggest that Damascus would risk attacks on Syria proper to "drag Israel back" to southern Lebanon.
"There is a discussion within Hizbullah," notes a Western envoy. "Should they claim Israeli defeat and a Hizbullah victory - and concentrate on Hizbullah welfare [programs] and politics? Or should they follow those on the militant wing who may want to continue until they reach Jerusalem?"
Like all its operations, Hizbullah shrouds its intentions in mystery. If Syria does make peace with Israel at some point, however, and Syria's use of Hizbullah as a "card" disappears, then some predict a big change.
"Syria is a secular state with an inborn dislike of Islamic fundamentalism," says the senior diplomat. "In the future there could be a parting of ways."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society