Never Say Never Again to Damascus

A rising chorus in the United States and elsewhere is now saying that the key to bringing peace to the Middle East, and ending the 23-day-old war in Lebanon, can be found in Syria. (It could also be found in Iran, but talking to Syria is a lot easier to swallow for Washington than talking to Tehran.) Among those to loudly lobby for dialogue with Syria are the veteran journalist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the Syria-expert at Oklahoma University Joshua Landis, Professor David Lesch, who is a biographer of President Bashar al-Asad, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and the respected Israeli diplomat and historian Itamar Rabinovich. Edward Luttwak, the historian and former advisor to the U.S. secretary of defense and to the state department, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal July 25 titled "Come Back Bashar," echoing the call for the United States to engage in dialogue with Syria. Yet another article appeared in the conservative National Review, written by James Robbins, called "Let's be friends with Syria."

Another group of commentators in the United States argues that the war in Lebanon must be expanded to include Syria. Hizbullah will only be destroyed, according to this thinking, if one of its patrons, either Syria or Iran, suffers a strong military blow. When this happens, Hizbullah will fall by default. This chorus adds that since Iran is too big, too strong, and fighting it would be too risky, Israel must attack Syria instead. Israel cannot negotiate directly with Hizbullah because this would amount to recognizing Hizbullah's legitimacy as a non-state entity in Lebanon. Instead, according to this line of thought, Israel has to sit down with Syria through a third party, and the only way to do that is to drag Syria into confrontation, then conduct a deal, which by default would include Hizbullah.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, rejects this proposal, fearing that bombing Syria with no real pretext would only add fuel to the crisis. This course might encourage Hizbullah to strike deeper into the Israeli heartland, or even drag Iran into war, because both countries are tied by a military defense agreement. To date, Israel has already suffered 66 deaths, 39 of them IDF soldiers. Israel, Olmert correctly concludes, cannot fight a war on four fronts: against the Palestinians at home, the Syrians, the Iranians, and Hizbullah. The only way to end the conflict is to turn to Damascus and talk to President Bashar al-Asad.

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