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Detente Is the Talk of Town In Damascus

Damascus — While Republicans and Democrats in Washington trade blows over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria last week, officials and pundits in this ancient capital describe the political feuding as a distraction from a more important truth. From their viewpoint, Pelosi’s visit was not a freelance bid for American-Syrian thaw but rather the latest step in a larger Syrian-Western rapprochement that has been under way for months.

Sources here acknowledge that the substance of Pelosi’s talks with President Bashar al-Assad hardly deviated from American policy: demands that Syria stop supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, help secure the release of Israeli soldiers, refrain from meddling in Lebanon’s politics, and prevent arms and militants from crossing into neighboring Iraq.

For the Syrians, all this was less important than Pelosi’s mere presence. The visit by the highest American official in two years was taken by the regime as evidence, the clearest to date, that a Western policy of isolating Syria — prompted by accusations that Damascus was behind the February 2005 slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri — was on its last legs. Coming on the heels of a slew of visits since last summer by Western European officials and by legislators of the United States, the Pelosi junket was interpreted here as evidence that the growing chorus of calls in Washington and Jerusalem to engage Syria was making inroads despite the reluctance of the Bush administration.

“What mattered to the Syrians was that she was in Damascus,” said political scientist Sami Moubayed of al-Kalamoun University. “Whether she came with a peace offer from Israel or a truce from Washington, they welcomed her as a guest of honor, with red carpets in the Syrian capital.”

Syrians point to two hardly known recent diplomatic events as evidence of their eagerness to join the pro-Western fold. Damascus played a key role in pushing Hamas and Fatah to reach an agreement earlier this year on a Palestinian national unity government, which Syrians view as a Hamas concession toward Israel. Even though the deal was signed in Mecca under the auspices of Saudi King Abdullah, a Western diplomat confirmed Syrian claims that most of the heavy lifting was done by Damascus, where Hamas leader Khaled Meshal resides.

In addition, Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem told Arab media that Damascus had helped, at Britain’s request, to mediate the release of the 15 British sailors captured last month by Iran for allegedly entering its territorial waters.

The guarded optimism here is better understood when compared with the jittery mood that prevailed in 2005, when a United Nations probe into the Hariri murder pointed fingers at the Assad regime. Syrian troops were then forced to withdraw from Lebanon under American and French pressure, and talk of forcing a regime change in Damascus was in full swing.

But pressure on Syria has eased since then. Iraq has descended into sectarian chaos, and the American administration’s democratization agenda is in shambles. Israel’s military onslaught in Lebanon last summer bolstered pro-Syrian forces. In addition, the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have taken some pressure off Damascus, even prompting calls to woo the regime back into the Arab mainstream, so as to isolate Tehran.

In Washington, meanwhile, talk of engagement with Syria gained credibility with the release last fall of the bipartisan report issued by the Iraq Study Group. Since then, the pace of congressional trips to Damascus has stepped up; in addition to the Pelosi delegation, three Republican legislators met Assad a couple of days earlier, and another did so the following day.

As a result, Syrian officials are hoping that Washington and Jerusalem will heed their message: Syria is ready not only to make peace with Israel but also to distance itself from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran — but it sees these as results of negotiations and not as preconditions. In exchange, Damascus wants to obtain the full return of the Golan Heights, a less hostile government in Lebanon and, most crucially, renewal of strong relations with the United States.

“The Syrians are really ready and serious about making peace with Israel,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, longtime Damascus bureau chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat. “Syria is also ready to discuss Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran as part of the endgame with Washington.”

A Western diplomat in Damascus seconded the view that the regime is not pursuing any ideological goal but is motivated exclusively by Syria’s national interest and its self-preservation. As a result, the diplomat said, Syria appears ready to discuss even such sensitive issues as Lebanon.

Syria signaled its openness in secret peace talks between a Syrian intermediary and a former senior Israeli diplomat, according to published accounts that have been confirmed publicly by the Israeli negotiator, former Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Liel. Both Syria and Israel have denied involvement in those discussions, but the participants claim that both governments were updated regularly. Well-informed sources add that this is especially true with regard to key Syrian officials, and that Damascus eventually pulled out when Israel refused to allow officials to participate in the talks.

A related development has been the warming of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia after years of deterioration. Ties hit a low point during last summer’s war in Lebanon, when Assad blasted Arab countries that initially criticized Hezbollah — most notably Saudi Arabia — as “half-men.” Both sides made efforts to iron out their differences before the recent summit of the Arab League held in the Saudi capital, where Syria endorsed the renewed Saudi initiative calling for normalization with Israel.

Still, another Western diplomat said that Western countries remained uncertain about Syria’s willingness to distance itself from Hezbollah or from Iran.

Early this week, France began circulating a draft statement at the U.N. Security Council expressing concern about continuing Syrian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

While the Bush administration maintains that the regime’s negative role in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories does not warrant a full-fledged engagement, it nonetheless sent a State Department official to Damascus last month to discuss the fate of Iraqi refugees. American officials also participated in a conference in Baghdad that was attended by officials from both Syria and Iran.

Moreover, the administration has quietly used European diplomats and Saudi officials to assess whether Syria is ready to change course.

Last August, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos became the first Western official to visit Damascus since the Hariri murder. He was followed by several European diplomats, including Britain’s top foreign policy adviser and, most symbolically, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The British diplomat, Nigel Sheinwald, arrived in Damascus last November with a set of requests after a trip to Washington and meetings with State Department officials. He called on Syria to support the Western-backed governments in Iraq and in Lebanon, to pressure Hamas to enter a Palestinian unity government with Fatah, to fight Islamic terrorism and to downgrade relations with Iran.

Syria moved on the Iraq front by re-establishing diplomatic and intelligence ties with Baghdad, welcoming senior Iraqi government officials, intensifying a security crackdown on jihadist networks and coaxing Sunni leaders to participate in national reconciliation efforts. Syria helped broker the Palestinian government accord. It signaled that its growing ties with Iran were the result of its isolation rather than an ideological stance — and, as such, could be easily reversed. But Lebanon, which was the main focus of the Solana visit and of recent discussions with Saudi Arabia, remains the sticking point.

The Western- and Saudi-backed Lebanese government has locked horns with pro-Syrian factions over the creation of an international tribunal to judge the culprits of the killings of Hariri and other anti-Syrian politicians. For months, pro-Syrian forces have blocked a parliamentary vote to create the court, citing Damascus’s claims that the U.N. probe is a political ploy by Western powers rather than a fair judicial process.

Some observers believe that both sides have now realized that a compromise was needed to avoid a civil war in Lebanon. The Solana visit, in particular, fueled speculation that a proposal was in the offing to spare the most senior Syrian officials in exchange for Damascus’s acceptance of the tribunal.

Compared with Lebanon, Israel is a fairly straightforward problem. Both sides nearly clinched an agreement in 2000 but ultimately failed to reach a compromise on the tracing of the border. After insisting for years that future talks would need to start where they left off, Syria formally dropped that condition, beginning with a 2003 Assad interview in The New York Times. Syrian officials claim that a deal would be within reach if only they had partners in Jerusalem and in Washington. After Pelosi announced that she had conveyed a peace message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the administration blasted her for encouraging a rogue regime and Olmert’s office quickly denied that Israel had made any overture.

But while the regime officially laments the lack of Israeli and American response to its repeated peace overtures, it also serves a purpose. “They understand Olmert is very weak and that there will be no resumption of full-fledged negotiations under a Bush administration,” one local commentator said. “So their repeated calls for peace are a way of embarrassing Israel and the U.S., because they know there will be no answer.”

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