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Analysis - Tough talk on Syria lays groundwork for Middle East peace
By John Yaukey | GNSWASHINGTON - An old Middle Eastern maxim says Arabs cannot make war without Egypt or peace without Syria.
Egypt is no longer the military colossus it once was, but Syria remains a pivotal player in Middle Eastern peace. Perhaps this explains why the Bush administration has taken a sudden interest in the nation that supports some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the region.
To be sure, President Bush is concerned about the recent accusations some of his top officials have hurled at Syria, namely that it might be harboring Iraqi war criminals and is almost certainly making chemical weapons.But experts say Bush has more immediate and constructive plans for Damascus than setting it up for regime change with a list of charges.
He is actually trying to leverage some cooperation.
With the war in Iraq winding down, next on the Bush agenda is jumpstarting the long stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under a plan called the ``road map.'' Perhaps more than any other Arab nation, Syria is geopolitically and geographically positioned either to help the talks advance by suppressing the anti-Israeli terrorists it holds sway with or allowing the peace process to again explode in violence.
The recent accusations by the Bush administration were a form of muscular diplomacy, essentially putting Syrian President Bashar Assad on notice while also providing an option for redemption. When Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Damascus this spring, as he announced he would do this week, he will be able to tell Assad that controlling terrorism in the Middle East will help ease concerns that Syria is becoming an unacceptable threat to U.S. interests.
``There is certainly some disappointment with the regime in Syria and some of the opportunities it has missed to move forward,'' said Thomas Carothers, an expert on political change in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``But I think a lot of this talk recently is aimed at some near-term objectives.''
Road map to peace
Getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track is essential to the Bush plan for the Middle East, if only because the Arab-Muslim world will never accept any U.S. foreign policy as legitimate that does not address statehood for the now destitute Palestinians.
Before the war with Iraq, the Arab world pleaded with the United States to take up Middle East peace rather than invade Baghdad as a more effective approach to eradicating terrorism.
Bush promised to make it task No. 2, if only to mollify moderate Arab states.
Failure to make progress in the peace process now would greatly compromise the already tarnished image of America in the Arab world and confirm what many of the world's 1 billion plus Muslims suspect - that the United States and Israel are conspiring to take their land and oil.
``The mood in the Arab world right now toward us is somewhere between rage and fury,'' said Michael Doran, a Princeton University professor of Middle East studies.
The yet-to-be-published road map was drafted by what's known as the Quartet: the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.Once the Palestinians have confirmed their parliament and Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), which is supposed to happen as early as next week, the White House will release the road map and then take what promises to be a flood of feedback from both sides.
The plan is designed to create a Palestinian state within two years.
The upcoming talks that will kick off the process could survive a few scattered terrorist attacks and Israeli reprisals.
But if the violence that started in September 2000 were to continue unabated, the road map would flounder and with it any hope of U.S. legitimacy in the Arab-Muslim world.
The terrorist groups that don't want peace with Israel know this.
Syria has undeniable links to all of them.
Syria and terrorists
Syria has been on the State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism since the list's inception in 1979.
It has not been directly involved in terrorist operations since 1986, according to the State Department, and it bars Syria-based groups from launching attacks from within its borders or targeting Westerners.
But that hasn't stopped these groups from working effectively and openly out of Syria-occupied Lebanon where they have launched numerous direct attacks against Israel or supplied groups operating in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which gets substantial technical and financial support from Syria, has been responsible for repeated missile attacks in northern Israel. Some intelligence reports indicate Hezbollah has an interest in acting against the United States.
Hamas, a Palestinian group in the occupied territories, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is headquartered in Damascus, together have carried out virtually all the suicide bombings in Israel since September 2000.
Those attacks have prompted sometimes-brutal forays by the Israelis into the occupied territories, which have scuttled any chance of peace thus far.
But Syria has more than just black marks against it.
Despite its strong ties to regional terrorist groups, Syria has been a valuable U.S. ally in the global war on terrorism. Assad has shared valuable intelligence about the al-Qaida terrorist network with the United States while FBI and CIA officials have traveled to Syria to meet with intelligence officers.
As the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks approach, the Bush administration has made it clear it wants to see that cooperation improve with Syria cracking down in its own back yard.
Powell recently cast it virtually as a make-or-break opportunity.
``We hope that Syria understands now that there is a new environment in the region with the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein,'' Powell said just before announcing he would visit Syria. ``We hope Syria will reconsider its policies of past years and understand that there are better choices it can make than the choices it has made in the past.''
If terrorists are again permitted to derail the Middle East peace talks, the Bush administration may well hold Assad accountable, if only because of what he fails or refuses to do.
That could prove career ending for the leader already in the crosshairs of some administration hawks.