Syria's role at U.S. talks may help Lebanon

Syria's controversial presence at Tuesday's Middle East peace talks in Annapolis may boost stability in Lebanon, which is deadlocked over electing a new president.

Syria's presence at the Annapolis peace conference Tuesday could help ease tensions in Lebanon, which has entered a leadership vacuum after rival factions reached deadlock over the election of a new president, analysts say.

Syria, which exerts powerful influence over the Lebanese opposition to the Western-backed government in Beirut, is attending the Annapolis conference after US officials agreed that the fate of the Golan Heights – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967 – could be discussed.

The presence at Annapolis of Syria, a close ally of Iran and a staunch foe of Israel, may herald the beginning of a thaw in the icy relations between Damascus and Washington, which some analysts believe could help stabilize Lebanon and weaken Syria's relationship with Iran.

"There's been a very clear link in the past two weeks between the Lebanon crisis and Annapolis," says Ibrahim Hamidi, the influential Damascus correspondent of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily. "It's part of a process that focuses again on the Arab-Israeli struggle. Definitely, it will have a positive impact on Lebanon."

The Lebanese parliament is scheduled to convene on Friday for a sixth attempt at electing a new president. The last attempt, on Friday, hours before President Émile Lahoud stood down, was postponed after parliamentarians failed to reach the necessary quorum of two-thirds.

Lebanon in limbo

A tense calm has settled over Lebanon, which has entered an unprecedented constitutional limbo. Hundreds of Lebanese troops and armored vehicles are deployed throughout Beirut to prevent trouble from breaking out. But so far the two rival factions – the Western-backed March 14 block, which forms a slim parliamentary majority, and the pro-Syrian opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hizbullah have refrained from escalating the situation.

The March 14 block had threatened to elect a president from their own block if no consensus candidate was found. Such a step, however, would have triggered the opposition to launch street demonstrations and possibly even form a rival government, leading to chaos and potential violence.

"The March 14 block knows that the balance of power is in favor of the opposition and Syria and Iran. They have to wait and see what the opposition move will be," says Sateh Noureddine, columnist for Lebanon's As Safir daily.

Analysts expect little political movement before the results of the Annapolis conference are known, particularly if Syria emerges from the event satisfied.

Syria's relations with the US effectively have been frozen since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A United Nations investigation has implicated senior Syrian officials in the killing and an international tribunal is being established to judge those eventually indicted for the crime.

Some analysts believe that Damascus is seeking a comprehensive deal which would restore relations with Washington and help improve its strained ties to other Arab countries that have viewed with deep unease Syria's strengthened relationship with Iran in the past two years.

The outlines of such a deal were articulated by Émile Khoury, a columnist with Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper, who wrote on Saturday that Syria would offer to help stabilize Lebanon, and in exchange, the international tribunal "would not be used for political vengeance that puts the Syrian regime in danger."

US warming to Syria?

Until now, the Bush administration has shown little willingness to mount a serious reengagement with Damascus, but that could be changing, analysts say.

Indeed, calls for engaging with Syria are coming from unlikely quarters.

Speaking at a conference in Washington last month, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, the then-deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army, said it was "time to use the carrot" not just the stick in dealings with Syria.

Damascus, he said, should be engaged with the goal of "removing Syria from the axis of resistance" – the regional alliance grouping Syria, Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas that opposes Israel and US policy in the Middle East.

"This will stabilize Lebanon and reduce Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria," he said.

Although Syria is sending a second-rank delegation to Annapolis, its presence alone as the leading Arab enemy to Israel has provided diplomatic cover for other Arab states to attend, boosting US hopes for a successful conference.

"The fact that the Syrians got what they wanted from Washington [on the Annapolis agenda] made the Syrians happy, and I think this will be part of a process of resuming dialogue between the two administrations," says Mr. Hamidi of Al-Hayat.

But Syria's decision to attend Annapolis is creating some unease and irritation among its Iranian, Hizbullah, and Hamas allies.

On Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad directed caustic criticism at Arab leaders attending Annapolis, saying, "Participation in this summit is an indication of a lack of intelligence of some so-called politicians.... I am sorry that some people around us plan to participate in the conference which only helps to support the Zionist occupiers."

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says that Mr. Ahmadinejad's comment was "very strong language" and a "clear warning to Syria that if it makes concessions [at Annapolis] it will fall out of favor with Iran."

Meanwhile, March 14 politicians are closely watching the diplomatic dance between Damascus and Washington. They are wary of being sold out in a broader deal between the US, Syria, and Iran, knowing that Lebanese sovereignty has often been sacrificed for regional harmony.

"The days of direct Syrian presence in Lebanon are over," says Andrew Tabler, editor in chief of Syria Today. "However, Syria being invited [to Annapolis] gives it an opportunity to show it has influence with parties in Lebanon and can help to improve the situation there."

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