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IRAQ - Damascus Sees Opportunity To Break Out.

The conflict in Lebanon is offering Syria's Ba'thist dictatorship a rare opportunity to break out of its international isolation, as some European governments start looking to Damascus to help resolve the crisis. Ostracised by the world community since last year's assassination of Lebanon's former PM Rafiq Hariri, the regime thinks it can now leverage its support for Hizbullah to reassert its regional role.

The FT on Aug. 5 quoted European diplomats as saying that France, and to a certain extent the UK, remained adamantly opposed to re-engagement with Syria, amid concerns it would use the conflict to regain its influence in Lebanon. But the FT said other EU members, including Spain and Germany, saw benefit in drawing the Syrians into discussion and pulling them away from Iran, Damascus' ally and Hizbollah's sponsor.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus last week and said: "Syria wants to be part of the solution. Syria doesn't want to be part of the problem". Moratinos was also quoted as saying Syria was willing to exercise its influence on Hizbullah "if circumstances and the political and military context of Lebanon" changed. But later a Syrian official denied that such an offer was made to the Spanish minister.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who sent an envoy to Damascus recently, said Syria should be offered economic assistance and closer ties with the EU in exchange for co-operation on Lebanon. "Syria is too important a regional player to be left isolated in the long term", he minister told a German newspaper, adding: "I'm going to get engaged in showing Syria a path where it can be a constructive partner [in the region]". Germany has won qualified support from Israel for its initiative.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said he would not block Berlin's moves, though he had doubts about Syria's motives. The US remains strongly opposed to engagement with the Ba'thist dictatorship, still suspecting Syrian role in the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. Syria is said to have recently facilitated the more of Sa'd bin Laden to Lebanon. This son of al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden is said to have been released by Iran and to be seeking to establish al-Qaeda cells in Lebanon to fight Israel as well as to stage anti-US terrorist operations in Lebanon and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda is the most radical among the Sunni world's Neo-Salafi groups.

Italy, too, has appeared to favour more engagement with Syria and Iran. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema recently told a parliamentary committee: "The politics of isolation of the past years have not borne fruit".

Damascus was the power broker in Lebanon until last year, when it was forced to remove its troops from the country in the face of Lebanese and international pressure. The Ba'thist regime denies involvement in the Hariri killing, but its alleged role is under investigation by a UN commission.

Syria is the conduit of Iranian-supplied weapons to Hizbullah, which in turn helps exerts pressure on Israel without putting Damascus at direct risk of Israeli retaliation. The relationship with Hizbullah is resented by anti-Syria Lebanese politicians who argue that if the Syrian regime wants to fight Israel it should open its own front, rather than use Lebanese territory.

Syria insists Lebanon should not reach a peace settlement with Israel until the Jewish state also withdraws from the Golan Heights, occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights and that front has been totally quiet since 1974 when the US brokered a military disengagement accord between Syria and Israel.

The FT quoted an Arab diplomat as saying: "Syria sees the Lebanon crisis as an opportunity to get out of its isolation. It gets to say to others, 'Don't think you can decide the future of the region without our input, and it can be a constructive input if there is give and take'". But the price for winning Syrian support for international plans under discussion, including the deployment of an international force in south Lebanon could involve much more than diplomatic attention and economic incentives.

The eventual disarming of Hizbullah, which world powers are demanding, will be opposed by Damascus. Syrian officials say they would back a Lebanese political consensus over a UNSC resolution. But they also point out that there is no internal agreement yet among Lebanese groups on deployment of an international force.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Aug 7, 2006
Words:729
Previous Article:IRAQ - The Iraqi Civil War.
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