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Is Syria Panicking? - Peter Brookes

As a major diplomatic offensive begins with the surprise visit of Secretary of State Condi Rice to Beirut this morning, Syria is feeling increasingly isolated. And with good reason. Not only are other Arab states putting pressure on Damascus to rein in Hizballah, but the word this morning is that Syria will not be invited to attend this Wednesday's Rome conference on Lebanon.

Is Syria panicking? Could be. Just take a look at Damascus' evolving stance over the duration of the conflict. First, Syria said nothing about the Hizballah-initiated armed attack into Israel that resulted in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. No surprise there as Hizballah is Damascus' cat's-paw after all.

Then as Israel responded to the Hizballah provocation with force and massed troops on the Lebanese border, Syria said that if Israel invades Lebanon, it will send in troops. Next we hear whispers that Damascus may be seeking an opening-even rapprochement--with Washington a year after the U.S. recalled its ambassador. Even more interesting, Syria said it is willing to help the U.S. with al Qaeda, in Lebanon of all places.

But while Syria's position seems to be softening, Damascus is, in actuality, desperate. It is becomes increasingly marginalized in this Middle East crisis by both the United States and other Arab nations, and may have little to no say in resolving the current Lebanese conflict. This would be a serious blow to Damascus' interests-and more painfully, its ego.

The United States should only engage Syria on the Lebanon issue if it is in our interest to do so, not merely to placate other regional players. And should we decide to do so, we must not forget in our haste to resolve the ongoing conflict about Syria's other transgressions including its involvement in the assassination of Lebanese politicians and journalists, its support of the insurgency in Iraq or its deepening ties with Iran. In the long run, if Syria wants to reestablish ties with the U.S., it's going to have to do a lot more than control Hizballah.

Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Email: peterbrookes@heritage.org