In Mideast, US diplomacy by proxy

Syria is a key to the crisis, but Secretary Rice, now in the region, delivers US message via others.

Though American officials consistently point to Syria as a key player in the Middle East crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly won't be stopping in Damascus on her current trip to the region.

She is visiting Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories before attending an international conference in Rome tomorrow. The meeting, bringing together Western and Arab countries, is to explore the avenues that could lead to a cease-fire and creation of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

But it is Syria that Ms. Rice and other US officials say "knows what it needs to do" in this crisis. That means stopping its arms supply line to Hizbullah's military wing, and pressuring Hizbullah's leaders (some of whom live in Damascus) to give up abducted Israeli soldiers and cease the shelling of Israeli territory.

But rather than delivering that message itself to Damascus – an Arab capital that has had no American ambassador for more than a year – Washington is turning to its closest Arab partners to carry its message.

The Bush administration's principle of avoiding the international players it finds most objectionable is facing in the Middle East what may be its biggest test.

It is a diplomatic practice that the Bush administration has used elsewhere, but without clear results thus far, analysts say.

Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a skeptic. "To imagine you could somehow subcontract to someone else the contacts and pressuring with a party you consider crucial but at the same time disagreeable or objectionable is not a good" approach, he says .

He says the Bush administration has used the same diplomatic model in other cases: toward North Korea, "burying any contact in the six-party talks while counting on China to use its influence, even though our interests are not the same" as Beijing's; and toward Iran, "where we've subcontracted diplomacy to the Europeans because we won't talk to Tehran."

Now the United States is saying it won't talk to Syria, "so we're trying to find someone to delegate that to," says Ambassador Freeman. "We have to realize, however, that it is extremely unlikely that even our friends the Saudis would be as vigorous in defining and defending our interests as we would be."

For one thing, it is not clear how much influence other Arab countries have with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And with Arab populations turning rapidly pro-Hizbullah as Lebanese civilian casualties mount, the reluctance of Arab regimes to be labeled as carrying water for Washington only grows.

The US is demonstrating an understanding of the impact of mounting Lebanese casualties by expressing concern and a desire for an end to hostilities – some observers say belatedly. In a surprise stop yesterday in Beirut, Rice said she was "deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring."

US officials accompanying Rice said she would discuss US humanitarian assistance, according to wire reports.

But Rice was also to meet with the pro-Syrian speaker of Lebanon's parliament, Nabih Berri. That meeting is just one of a growing number of indications some experts see as the US reevaluating its refusal so far to talk with Syria.

"The fact is that US diplomacy is leaning towards some level of engagement with Syria, and no matter what you think of the Syrians, that is what is called for to get anything done," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

While en route to the Middle East, Rice said the channels do exist to communicate with Syria, and she suggested a willingness to use those channels if the Syrians offer any signs it might be useful.

"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," Rice told reporters accompanying her. "I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it's because we don't talk to the Syrians."

Mr. Gerges, who was among Americans evacuated from Beirut by the US military, says the US – and Israel – are "beginning to realize that Israel cannot impose a settlement on Hizbullah."

Even Israeli officials say they have destroyed only about half of Hizbullah's arsenal of an estimated 12,000 rockets. Taking out anything near the other half would takes weeks of battle and would probably cause hundreds more civilian casualties.

At the same time, Gerges says, the Syrians have no confidence in the moderate Arab neighbors that the US is likely to count on to carry its message to Damascus. A recent meeting of Arab foreign ministers was punctuated by open shouting between the Syrian representative and some of his Arab counterparts, Gerges notes.

Recently, some US officials have suggested that the US could seek to use the crisis to pry Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Ties between Damascus and Tehran have tightened over recent years as the Assad regime has come under increasing pressure from the US.

But breaking Syria of a growing reliance on Iran will be difficult at this time, some analysts say. "I don't believe pressure will work at this point to wean the Syrians away from the Iranians," says Gerges. "First of all, the Syrians feel their survival is at stake, and they see Iran as their only card."

At the same time, Syria's "embittered relations" with Arab neighbors, which it believes have not stood up to US pressures, make it less likely to cut ties to a powerful ally.

In any case, other experts in the region say the US will also have to accept that Hizbullah is not just a stooge for Syria and Iran. "There's a lot of inaccurate conjecture in our official statements about the relationships between Hizbullah and Syria and Iran," says Freeman, now president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington. "They may play important roles as financier and quartermaster, but the fact is that Hizbullah is very much an independent actor, a state within a state."

He adds that "as distasteful as that may be" for many of the parties to this crisis – including the Saudis and other Arab states – "they at some point are going to have to come to terms with that reality."

Material from wires services was used in this report.

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