What Syria Would Say

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 15/12/06):

What positions would Syria take if it entered a dialogue with the United States about Iraq and other Middle East issues? I put that question Thursday to Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, and he offered surprisingly strong support for the recommendations made last week in the Baker-Hamilton report.

"We are not against the U.S.," Moallem said. "To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that, in our opinion, serves American interests in the region." He described America and the region as being at a "crossroads" and said: "Either we go for stability, or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over."

Moallem's comments are the most detailed Syrian response to the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton. As we made a line-by-line review of the group's recommendations involving Syria, Moallem expressed support for nearly every item. When I asked if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad endorsed these positions, he answered: "He is the leader. I am expressing his ideas."

Moallem portrayed Syria as a potential partner in stabilizing the region. He referred at one point to "the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel." Later, he said that while Syria favors a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a rapid American withdrawal before Iraqis are ready to take over security would be "an immoral step."

The Bush administration has shown little interest in dialogue with Damascus, and the administration has been sharply critical of Syria's campaign against Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a key U.S. ally. Administration officials have said in the past that although Syria speaks of a desire for cooperation and dialogue, its actions -- in Lebanon and elsewhere -- have not matched its words.

A former Syrian ambassador to Washington, Moallem worked with Baker on diplomatic issues involving the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which opened the way for peace talks between Syria and Israel that were ultimately unsuccessful. The Syrian said that when they met again in September to discuss the Iraq Study Group, Baker asked him: " 'Walid, how can we return to the Syrian-American situation of the early 1990s, when we succeeded to build mutual trust?' I told him, 'This is our wish also in Syria.' "

Moallem argued that the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Syria have failed and that it's time for the administration to try another approach based on shared Syrian-American interests in three goals for the Mideast: peace, stability and prosperity. He said that although Syria hoped to recover the Golan Heights, it was not setting this as a condition for dialogue.

"A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," he said. He denied that Syria was seeking greater power in Lebanon as the price for its help in Iraq. "This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon,' " he said. But he did note that if America wanted dialogue, "you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability."

Syria has already begun implementing some of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations for Iraq, Moallem said. With this month's restoration of Syrian-Iraqi diplomatic ties, he explained, the two countries are beginning joint efforts to control their border and increase political and economic cooperation, as called for by the Iraq Study Group. "We are not doing this to please the U.S. We are doing what is in the Syrian and Iraqi interest," he said.

Moallem said he supported the report's recommendation for an Iraq Support Group that would draw in Syria and other neighboring states, but only after the Iraqis themselves had agreed on plans for disarming militias and ending sectarian divisions. He said that the timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops "depends on Iraqi ability to take over security" and that America's military role there should focus on training rather than fighting.

On the specific Baker-Hamilton recommendations involving Lebanon, Moallem also expressed general support. He said Syria wasn't shipping arms to Hezbollah, that it would "continue our cooperation" with the U.N. investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and that it was "ready" to "achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners" with Israel. He also disclosed what he said was a previously unreported effort by Syria and Qatar to broker a compromise between the radical Palestinian group Hamas and the moderate Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Is this Syrian gambit for real? Is Moallem serious in his offer to talk with America about a comprehensive package of peace with Israel, stability for Iraq and compromise in Lebanon? The answer is that there's really only one way to find out, which is to explore further the ideas the Syrian foreign minister has put on the table.