The Syria Gambit

Holed up in the grand Serail, the center of government in the heart of Beirut, five surviving members of Lebanon's cabinet have been living in fear. Just last year they were leaders of a mass movement that forced Syrian troops out of the country and seemed to open the way for a thriving democracy. But those memories now seem as old and fragile as shards of Phoenician glass. One by one, brutally and spectacularly, Syria's high-profile opponents in Lebanon have been eliminated. The most recent: Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the son of a former president, gunned down in November. Since then, no minister has been sure if, or when, he'll be next.

As its enemies cower, the Syrian regime crows--even as it denies responsibility for the murders. "Our relations with Lebanon will be stronger than when we had our Army in that country," Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa boasted in the Arab press earlier this month. "Syria is on a roll," concedes Jonathan Paris, a fellow at Washington's Hudson Institute and a frequent critic of Damascus. "As in the '90s, Syria is seen as the indispensable player."

President George W. Bush, let it be said, is not convinced. Put aside for a moment the poor Lebanese. The Syrians themselves "deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force," a White House statement declared last week. Bush called for a regime in Damascus "that fights corruption, respects the rule of law, guarantees the rights of all Syrians and works toward achieving peace in the region." The coterie around Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wouldn't qualify on a single count.

But the Iraq Study Group's recommendations for new strategic approaches to the Middle East put dialogue with Damascus near the top of the list, and a parade of U.S. senators, including Democrat John Kerry and Republican Arlen Specter, already is on the way to Assad's palace for grips and grins. Such is the growing international consternation about the Iraq debacle's impact that any force for regional stability, even a regime run like Al Capone's Chicago, is likely to be asked for help. Syria, it is believed, could help calm Iraq by closing its borders to insurgents who frequently come and go with impunity. If Lebanon is not to descend into civil war, Syria's cooperation is critical. Ditto for the occupied territories. There's even hope that Damascus can be seduced away from Iran, countering its hegemonic ambitions in the greater Middle East. "Syria is a key partner," says Syrian political scientist Marwan Kabalan, "in all these regional issues."

In fact, "key spoiler" would be a more accurate phrase. Palestinian terrorism, Hizbullah's guerrilla warfare, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq--the Assad regime can't fully control any of those threats, but it can make all of them worse. Syria's foreign policy is essentially a protection racket. To prevent harm, you pay it off. In a none-too-veiled threat, an editorial in the government-controlled daily Al Baath warned last week that if the Bush administration fails to engage Syria, "it will continue to wallow and sink in the quagmire and the situation in the region and the world will continue to be subjected to upheavals and instability."

The price of protection can be money, dialogue and, especially, respect--which lends the dictatorship legitimacy. Lebanese opponents of Syria fear their freedom could be part of the bargain, too. And the Israelis see the Iraq Study Group ready to put the future of the Golan Heights on the table. If a dialogue with Washington finally does begin, the wheeling and dealing could be as unpredictable as it is complex. But can it work?

The Iraq Study Group hinges its recommendation on one key judgment: "No country in the region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq." Yet as Jonathan Paris points out, Syria thrives on the level of unrest that exists right now. "If you were Bashar, the one thing you would be afraid of is regional stability," says Paris, "because then Syria's 19 million people would ask why they are ruled by this clique of 15 or so who run the country like it is their own bank."

Meanwhile, Assad's supposed tools--the Sunni radicals of Hamas and the Shiite revolutionaries of Hizbullah--have links to Islamist groups that might someday threaten the Assad regime directly. (It's still a capital crime to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which nearly overthrew the Syrian regime in the early 1980s. Yet Hamas is nothing more or less than the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) Despite an alliance with the mullahs in Iran that goes back more than a quarter century, Syria's secular regime and Assad's minority Alawite sect, seen as heretical by many Islamic fundamentalists, simply do not have the same interests as Tehran's.

In Iraq, for instance, Damascus is linked mainly to ex-Baathist and Sunni tribal leaders, while Iran's strength is among the Shiite religious parties fighting the Sunnis in an increasingly vicious civil war. "America has two different options," says Syrian author and political analyst Sami Moubayed. "Either they deal with Syria, while excluding Iran, or vice versa. Dealing with both is impossible and dealing with neither is also impossible."

In fact, the hope of some analysts in Washington and Tel Aviv is that Syria eventually can be pressured and persuaded to play a less disruptive role. An analogy might be Libya, which renounced terror, gave up weapons programs and made its peace with the West in 2003. But the years of boycotts and international isolation that finally forced Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi to come around were imposed only after criminal investigations nailed members of the Libyan regime for blowing up an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Then the workings of a special tribunal were key to convicting at least one of culprits and forced the Kaddafi government to assume some of the responsibility.

The only hope of marshaling the same kind of pressure on Syria is to nail the Assad regime in a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the Valentine's Day massacre of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri and bystanders in Beirut last year, and the other high-profile killings since. That's what the five Lebanese ministers in the Grand Serail are holding out for. And that is precisely why they've been put under siege by Hizbullah and other Syrian allies trying to destroy altogether the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "Political assassination is very, very common in Lebanon," says Ahmad Fatfat, one of the ministers in the Serail. "We need the tribunal to stop this. If we cannot succeed in this project, it is impossible to preserve our democracy."

Indeed, if they cannot succeed, it may be impossible to preserve the shreds of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. But the Assad regime, so good at spoiling, so good at surviving, is likely to go on.