David Ignatius interviewed Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and heard some interesting things from the man now immersed in negotiations with the Israeli government. However, when it came to Lebanon, the lion of Damascus chose to remain vague and insincere:
Asked whether Syria was prepared to restrain Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, Assad said this was a matter the Israelis should sort out in separate negotiations with the Lebanese. Indeed, he promoted the idea of the other negotiating tracks — which would draw in, at least indirectly, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“The longer the border, the bigger the peace,” Assad said. “Hezbollah is on the Lebanese border, not Syrian. Hamas is on the Palestinian border. . . . They should look at those other tracks. They should be comprehensive. If you want peace, you need three peace treaties, on three tracks.”
Assad wants to hold the Lebanese stick on both ends: he doesn’t want the responsibility (to tame Hezbollah), but does want the influence in Lebanon (of course, this is something he would not tell an American interviewe), as Danielle Pletka has pointedly remarked earlier this week:
It is not inconceivable that the regime in Damascus might throw its supporters in Tehran under the bus in exchange for prestige, cash and a free hand in Lebanon. But it is unrealistic to expect President Assad to dispose of Hezbollah and Hamas in the same way. Mr. Assad – broadly disliked at home, a member of a mistrusted Alawite minority, comically inept at managing his country’s resources – can maintain his grip on power only as long as he is seen as a vital instrument of Israel’s defeat.
But for Israel, peace with Syria is appealing for two reasons: first, it allows Syria to move away from Iranian influence, and, second, it may lead Syria to make the Hezbollah problem go away. If Assad can’t promise to do these things – the incentive for Israelis might disappear. And while some experts believe that the Syrian-Iranian relations are no more than a bargaining chip for Assad – the Syrian interest in Lebanon is one that Damascus sees as a strategic goal.
That’s why it is more than plausible that Assad is just playing a game with Ignatius. Rather than expressing his willingness to tame Hezbollah – thus giving ammunition to those claiming that what he really wants from “engagement” with Israel and the U.S. is the big prize of Lebanon – Assad plays hard to get. He wants Israel, and later the U.S., to ask for Syria’s intervention in Lebanon. The Bush administration clearly understands this game – and that’s why it has recently warned Israel to remain cautious as far as Lebanon is concerned:
The diplomatic messages asked Israel to remain committed to Lebanese sovereignty at all costs, stating “Israel must not sacrifice Lebanon for the sake of peace with Syria.” A senior Foreign Ministry official said the U.S. even asked Israel for “guarantees” on the matter. However, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday “the matter is not even on the table.”
However (as I’ve written in the past), the Syrian track is an issue on which both Israelis and Syrians weirdly share an interest: they both wait for Obama in the hope that he will be the one willing to change American priorities and abandon Lebanon in search of stability and success in the peace process. No wonder the Lebanese themselves seem less than enthusiastic about the prospect of peace with Israel.