Tougher international line on Syria

The Bush administration's goal in Syria is a familiar one: regime change.

But unlike in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, this time the US goal might be called "regime change lite." The objective, at least for now, is to change the nature of the regime in power in Damascus without necessarily forcing removal of the man in charge.

A diplomatic offensive at the United Nations Security Council includes a meeting of foreign ministers Monday that the US hopes will adopt a tough new resolution on Syria. It's the clearest sign that, for right now, the administration is willing to define "regime change" differently if the result is modification of Syria's behavior.

Most immediately, the US is joining partners Britain and France to demand Syria's cooperation in the international investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri earlier this year. Several key Syrian figures have been accused by the UN investigation of organizing the plot.

But the broader changes that the United States wants to see include an end to Syria's hold on Lebanon, a closing of Syria's borders to Islamist extremists headed for Iraq, and an end to Syrian support for Palestinian radicals. In short, the changes would amount to a recasting of the regime on the order of, some analysts say, the conversion undertaken by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Still, it's not an approach that everyone is convinced can work to American satisfaction.

"Right now the administration is more focused on what might be called policy change in Syria than on actual regime change," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert with the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"It's a strategy that requires some very big, and I'd say survival-threatening, changes in the regime to be a success," he adds. "I'm very pessimistic that the Syrian leopard can change its spots."

The broader climate

The administration's Syria strategy reflects the challenges that the US military is experiencing in Iraq and what President Bush calls a time for diplomacy. As part of a larger shift after the Iraq invasion, the strategy includes more nuance and patience developed in cooperation with, rather than in opposition to, the international community.

The resolution being sought by the US, France, and Britain threatens Syria with economic sanctions if it does not cooperate fully with the investigation of the Hariri assassination.

An interim report from the investigation, reviewed by the Security Council last week, implicates top Syrian officials in the massive car bombing in Beirut last February that killed Mr. Hariri and 22 others. The report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, the lead investigator in the UN probe, implicates the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as his brother-in-law, who heads military intelligence and is considered the regime's second most powerful.

The resolution requires Syria to arrest and provide access to the officials and others who are suspected of having played a role in the plot. It also calls for the suspects to fall under an international travel and assets freeze - and for the Syrian government to face sanctions if it fails to cooperate with the investigation, which has a mandate that expires Dec. 15.

John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, says the focus of the Security Council action is to get "substantive cooperation" from Syria on the investigation. But in a speech last week, Mr. Bush made clear that his demands of Syria go beyond the Hariri killing. "Syria is destabilizing Lebanon, permitting terrorists to use its territory to reach Iraq, and giving safe harbor to Palestinian terror groups," he said.

The administration's view of Syria as a regional troublemaker was bolstered by another UN report last week finding that, despite Syria's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, it continues to interfere in the neighboring country. Among the investigation's findings was an unabated flow of arms from Syria to Palestinian radical groups.

Potential for plans to backfire

But some foreign diplomats in Washington and New York say the opportunity to pressure Damascus could be squandered if other countries, particularly in the Middle East, get the idea that the Mehlis report is being used for purposes unrelated to the Hariri plot.

Already Algeria, the lone Arab country among the rotating members of the 15-member Security Council, is expressing concerns that a resolution ostensibly on the Hariri investigation is being used to pressure Syria in other ways. Russia and China, two permanent members of the Council with veto authority, are also expressing opposition to a reference to economic and diplomatic sanctions at this stage.

Syria's neighbors in particular fear that too much pressure could topple the Assad regime, with potentially negative consequences for the region - especially since Syria's only organized domestic political opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some countries working with the US are also cautioning against measures that could precipitate an Assad collapse. "Maybe it's better to use Assad to obtain the changes in terms of policy and behavior policy that we all hope for," says a senior Western diplomat.

The US is clearly approaching Monday's foreign ministers' meeting - which will include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - with the aim of showing Syria that the world means business. Ambassador Bolton says the US is not willing to go too far in watering down the draft resolution just to get "consensus at any price." But others say that at this point, a united stand may have more impact on Syria than tough words from part of a split Council.

A ministerial meeting can be useful if the Council is seen acting in accord, says a senior European official: "Otherwise, the impact of 15 ministers raising their hands in unanimity is lost."

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