US seeks to divide Syria & Iran


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

July 23, 2006

U.S. Plan Seeks to Wedge Syria From Iran

WASHINGTON, July 22 ‹ As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Israel on 
Sunday, Bush administration officials say they recognize Syria is central to any
plans to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, and they are seeking ways to 
peel Syria away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

In interviews, senior administration officials said they had no plans right now 
to resume direct talks with the Syrian government. President Bush recalled his 
ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a
former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005. Since then, America¹s contacts
with Damascus have been few, and the administration has imposed an array of 
sanctions on Syria¹s government and banks, and frozen the assets of Syrian 
officials implicated in Mr. Hariri¹s killing.

But officials said this week that they were at the beginning stages of a plan to
encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make the case to the Syrians that they must 
turn against Hezbollah. With the crisis at such a pivotal stage, officials who 
are involved in the delicate negotiations to end it agreed to speak about their 
expectations only if they were not quoted by name.

³We think that the Syrians will listen to their Arab neighbors on this rather 
than us,¹¹ a senior official said, ³so it¹s all a question of how well that can 
be orchestrated.¹¹

There are several substantial hurdles to success. The effort risks seeming to 
encourage Syria to reclaim some of the influence on Lebanon that it lost after 
its troops were forced to withdraw last year. It is not clear how forcefully 
Arab countries would push a cause seen to benefit the United States and Israel. 
Many Middle Eastern analysts are skeptical that a lasting settlement can be 
achieved without direct talks between Syria and the United States.

The effort begins Sunday afternoon in the Oval Office, where President Bush is 
to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, and the chief of the Saudi 
national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar was the Saudi
ambassador to Washington until late last year and often speaks of his deep 
connections to the Bush family and to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Ms. Rice is delaying her departure to the Middle East until after the meeting, 
which she is also expected to attend, along with Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. 
Hadley, the national security adviser. The session was requested by the Saudis, 
American officials said.

The expected outcome of the session is unclear. ³We don¹t know how patient the 
Saudis will be with the Israeli military action,¹¹ said a senior official said. 
³They want to see Hezbollah wiped out, and they¹d like to set back the 

But in the Arab world, the official added, ³they can¹t been seen to be doing 
that too enthusiastically.¹¹

Several of Mr. Bush¹s top aides said the plan was for Mr. Bush and other senior 
officials to press both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prod Syria into giving up its 
links with Hezbollah, and with Iran. The administration, aside from its 
differences with Iran over nuclear programs and with Syria over its role in 
Lebanon, has also objected to both nations¹ behavior toward their common 
neighbor, Iraq.

³They have to make the point to them that if things go bad in the Mideast, the 
Iranians are not going to be a reliable lifeline,¹¹ one of the administration 
officials said.

Another said, ³There is a presumption that the Syrians have more at stake here 
than the Iranians, and they are more exposed.²

The American officials are calculating that pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia 
and Jordan may help to get Syria on board.

But so far, there appears to be little discussion of offering American 
incentives to the Syrians to abandon Hezbollah, or even to stop arming it. The 
Bush administration has been deeply reluctant to make such offers, whether it is
negotiating with Damascus or with the governments of Iran or North Korea.

Nor did President Bush sound any conciliatory notes in his radio address on 
Saturday. ³For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah and it 
has helped provide Hezbollah with shipments of Iranian-made weapons,¹¹ he said. 
³Iran¹s regime has also repeatedly defied the international community with its 
ambition for nuclear weapons and aid to terrorist groups. Their actions threaten
the entire Middle East and stand in the way of resolving the current crisis and 
bringing lasting peace to this troubled region.²

The State Department lists Syria as a country that sends money to terrorist 
organizations. Syria¹s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has 
spent a lot of time on television in recent days, but he is often described as 
one of the loneliest ambassadors in Washington.

In the months after Sept. 11, Syria provided important assistance in the 
campaign against Al Qaeda. But relations soured as American officials complained
that Syria did little to crack down on associates of Saddam Hussein who funneled
money to the insurgency in Iraq through Syrian banks, or to stop the flow of 
insurgents across its border to Iraq. The United States imposed sanctions on 
Syria in 2004, and took further measures after Syrian officials were accused of 
involvement in Mr. Hariri¹s assassination.

The idea is to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, which have recently 
been drawn closer together by standoffs with Washington. Syria and Iran have 
been formally allied since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, but historically 
they were suspicious of each other.

³Historically and strategically, they are on opposing sides ‹ the Arabs and the 
Persians,² Daniel Ayalon, Israel¹s ambassador to the United States, said in an 
interview on Thursday. Now, he added, ³the only Arab country to ally with Iran 
is Syria,² a position that has angered Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Syria, 
like most of the Arab world, is largely Sunni. Iran and Iraq are largely Shiite.

A Western diplomat said Arab leaders had had trouble getting President Bashar 
al-Assad of Syria to come to the telephone when they called to express concern 
about Hezbollah¹s actions.

In 1996, when Israel and Hezbollah were fighting each other and bombs rained 
down on civilian populations, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent 10 
days shuttling between Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem before brokering a 
cease-fire and an agreement by Israel and Hezbollah to leave civilians out of 
the fighting.

Ms. Rice has said she has no intention of duplicating Mr. Christopher¹s 
approach. ³I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling 
and it wouldn¹t have been clear what I was shuttling to do,² she said Friday. ³I
have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to 
the status quo ante.²

Rather, the administration¹s declared aim is to carry out United Nations 
Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah and the deployment 
of the Lebanese Army to southern Lebanon. Syria, which was forced to withdraw 
its troops from Lebanon last year, may well balk at efforts to enforce it.

But while analysts say it is possible for the Bush administration and Israel to 
work out a solution without including Syria in the diplomatic wrangling, it 
would be difficult. Some Bush administration officials, particularly at the 
State Department, are pushing to find a way to start talking to Syria again.

Mr. Bush on Saturday telephoned the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip 
Erdogan, from his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to discuss the widening crisis in 
Lebanon, and pledged the United States would assist the Turkish government as it
battled the Kurdish Workers¹ Party, the violent separatist movement. Turkey has 
been mentioned as a potential leader of the proposed United Nations plan to 
deploy an international force to the region to help cool the violence.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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