Sunday, November 26, 2006

Syria would seek reward for helping to calm Iraq, some say

"DAMASCUS, Syria: As the U.S. debates whether to reach out to Syria for help in calming Iraq, some close to the Syrian regime say the country would be willing to help, but only if it got something valuable in return.

Damascus certainly is interested in political dialogue with the West and wants talks with Washington, many here say. But the regime of President Bashar Assad will want, in return, help on issues it cares deeply about — such as a return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

The regime itself has stayed tightlipped, refusing to say what it envisions but expressing willingness to help with Iraq and broader peace deals.

But Issa Darwish, a writer and former deputy foreign minister, said: "Syria won't be bitten from the same hole twice," referring to a widespread Syrian feeling that it got nothing in return from the U.S. after it agreed to participate in the earlier 1991 Gulf war to push then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

"Why should Syria help the Americans to leave Iraq in honor (this time), if they are not ready to reciprocate?" he asked in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Washington is debating whether the Bush administration should engage Syrian and also Iran — two countries it regards as pariah states that work to destabilize the entire Middle East. Supporters of doing that claim Syria could use its control over Iraq's most porous border to alleviate insurrection against the U.S. occupation, and ongoing civil conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

But it is far from certain U.S. President George W. Bush will decide to reach out, even if the influential Iraq Study Group recommends it. Last week Bush strongly endorsed his administration's past tough line with both countries, Iran and Syria.

As the debate has raged, Syria has done some outreach of its own on Iraq. Its foreign minister arrived in Baghdad last week to underline his country's readiness to help stabilize Iraq. While there, he announced a full restoring of diplomatic relations.

"We have expected Syria to show more understanding toward us... and the first (thing is) to start cooperation with us," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted as telling the Syrian foreign minister, according to a statement by his office.

His foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, was more specific.

He told AP that Syria should help ensure scrutiny of the border, stop infiltration of insurgents and hand over to Iraq insurgency leaders who are believed to be in Syria.

Iraqi officials have long accused Syria of harboring leaders of the former Baath Party who run much of the Sunni-based insurgency. They also accuse Damascus of opening its border for infiltrators and weapons smuggled to the insurgents.

Syria has never kept secret that it opposes the Americans in Iraq and the government they have installed in Baghdad. The government-run media lavishly praise the insurgents, who they call resistance fighters.

The situation may be even more clouded since last week's assassination of another anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon — the last in a string of such slayings that began with the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The United States immediately questioned if Syria were trying to destabilize Lebanon — something that might make the Bush administration even less willing to reach out. The Hariri investigation, which has deeply angered Syria, also seems likely to intensify, not wane, after the latest death.

Overall, political dialogue with Washington would be good for Syria, said political analyst Aymen Abdel Nour, who is linked to the reform wing of the ruling Baath party in Damascus.

But he also warned it would come at a high price: Damascus would certainly demand that Washington help Assad regain the Golan Heights from Israel, stop efforts to isolate his regime and also put an end to attempts to implicate Syria in Hariri's death."

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