Me, too: Syria presses its own road map to peace

But the US, suspicious of Damascus's support for militant groups, lets Syria dangle a while longer.

When the Bush administration announced last spring that it had come up with a "road map" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most nations in the region cautiously hoped for the best.

Not Syria. The problem wasn't over goals: Syria supports the creation of a Palestinian state, which the road map is supposed to achieve by 2005. Damascus's main worry was that it wasn't included in the process - and Syria's demand for the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, wasn't part of the equation.

But as Syria faces its worst fear - marginalization - the Bush administration seems to be in no mood to address Syria's concerns. The administration still has not forgiven Damascus for its tacit support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war, when hundreds of Arab volunteers were allowed to cross into Iraq to fight coalition forces and some fleeing members of Mr. Hussein's collapsing regime found sanctuary in Syria. And Syria's support of militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad make the US question the sincerity of Syria's commitment to peace.

"The Syrians want to be relevant but the US is essentially saying 'no way,'" says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator based in Beirut.

These are tough times for a country that was once seen as a crucial party to any lasting peace in the Middle East. But since the halt in Israeli-Syrian peace talks in 2000, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has found itself watching events from the outside. The next few weeks may determine whether this authoritarian state - rooted in the same Baathist ideology as its neighbor, Iraq - can determine its own future at the negotiating table, or whether it has any stake in the peace process at all.

In a meeting with President Assad in May, Mr. Powell had called on Damascus to cease backing militant groups opposed to the peace process.

But the Damascus offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have yet to be closed down fully. A European diplomat in Damascus confirmed that the Palestinian groups are "keeping a low profile, refusing to answer phones and meet with the press" but have not been expelled from the country, "which is what the Americans want."

"There are still elements in the regime who are not keen on closing the Palestinian offices." the diplomat says. "They are clinging onto the idea that the Americans will become unstuck in Iraq and leave them alone."

Syria says the offices of Palestinian groups in Damascus are used for media purposes only.

Other than the failure to expel the Palestinian militants, Arab volunteer fighters are reportedly still crossing Syria's porous 400-mile desert border with Iraq to fight US troops. The reports come amid indications that the Pentagon may be pushing for the option of military action against Syria.

Even those in Washington who prefer a policy of constructive engagement with Syria say that the Bush administration is running out of patience with Damascus' failure to redress its "serious miscalculations" of the past few months.

"All they [Syria] had to do was sit back and do nothing when the war in Iraq started. If they had done that, everything would have been fine," says an official in the State Department.

The official said that Syria's "mistake" in Iraq has removed any incentive in Washington to offer Damascus concessions on a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

"It's up to the Syrians to prove themselves," the official says. "We aren't going to offer them anything until they have shown a willingness to cooperate."

But Syria says it is cooperating in peace efforts, having made a strategic decision over a decade ago to striking an accord with Israel.

"Syria has been engaged in an extremely constructive course to make peace ... but it hasn't been marketing itself ... very well," Buthaina Shaaban, spokeswoman at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, told a conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington last week.

She said that a piecemeal approach to a regional settlement - such as the Israeli-Palestinian Road Map - has failed and only a comprehensive approach can achieve peace in the Middle East, within three months if the political will existed.

Syria has long championed a comprehensive peace settlement, with talks between Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel's Arab neighbors conducted simultaneously. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad never forgave his counterparts in Egypt and Jordan for breaking ranks and signing separate peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively. President Assad, who died in June 2000 and was replaced by his son Bashar, believed that the unilateral approach undermined the Arabs' collective bargaining power against Israel.

If the Israelis and Palestinians are able to achieve peace, then Syria and Lebanon would be the last of Israel's Arab neighbors to conclude a deal, leaving Damascus isolated and with little margin for maneuver. Syria's own peace track with Israel collapsed in March 2000.

US irritation toward Syria notwithstanding, Damascus has won the sympathy of some European countries, including France and Germany, as well as Russia. All three have called for the Syrian and Lebanese tracks to be fully addressed, with France recommending a separate road map for the two countries.

But Mr. Young expects little progress and does not believe a road map is necessary for Syria and Lebanon.

"The issues are well known and far from intractable," he says. But "the Sharon government has no interest in talking to the Syrians and the US has no interest in promoting the Syrian track at this time."

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