So how does ‘engaging with Syria’ look now?

By Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut (THE TIMES, 23/11/06):

In recent weeks the idea that the United States and the UK should “engage” Syria, but also Iran, to stabilise Iraq has been all the rage. On Tuesday, in an east Beirut suburb, Lebanon’s industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, showed what the cost of engagement might be. The scion of a prominent Christian political family was assassinated in broad daylight. This was the latest in a series of killings and bomb attacks that the UN investigator looking into the murder of the late Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, has determined are linked.

Mr Gemayel’s allies quickly accused Syria or its allies of the crime, and it’s difficult to disagree. With the late minister dead and six pro-Syrian ministers having just resigned, Lebanon’s Government is near the stage where it will be constitutionally forced to resign.

This is a priority for Syria as it would undermine Lebanon’s formal endorsement of the court being established by the UN to try suspects in the Hariri case. Syrian officials fear being fingered by the UN investigation.

Syria has encouraged its powerful Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, to bring down the Government. The recent ministerial resignations were led by the party which has been planning demonstrations to force the Government out.

Developments in Lebanon make the idea of engaging Syria at best premature. The Hariri investigation is continuing, and until the UN releases its final report on the assassination it makes no sense to talk to a Syrian regime that may find itself in the dock. Moreover, its President, Bashar Assad, has implied he would not allow Syrian suspects to appear before the tribunal, making a confrontation between Damascus and the international community likely. Eager partisans of engagement could have egg on their faces.

If political “realism” is about interests, then realists must prove that a country that has ignored successive UN resolutions demanding Syrian non-interference in Lebanon could somehow be a force for stability in Iraq, to which it has funnelled hundreds of foreign fighters. Engaging Mr Assad over Iraq will mean the gradual return of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, since neither the US nor the UK will be in a position to deny Syria in Lebanon while asking favours in Iraq.

If one has no qualms about abandoning a rare democratic success in the Middle East, as Lebanon has been, then by all means talk to the gentlemen in Damascus. But first someone should remind Mr Blair of a name oddly absent from his recent rhetoric of engagement: Rafiq Hariri. To which we can now add another: Pierre Gemayel.