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The road to Damascus

October 22, 2006

'KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE, and your enemies closer." It's an adage the Bush administration surely knows, yet it continues to insist that merely talking to nasty regimes legitimizes and empowers them. This stance is impeding progress on Middle East peace. The U.S. should sit down and talk to Syria -- and encourage Israel to do the same.

For years, the Syrians refused even to recognize, let alone negotiate with, Israel, or they set impossible preconditions. But lately Syrian President Bashar Assad keeps saying he wants peace talks.

Israel is internally divided on the wisdom of taking Assad up on the offer, knowing that Syria is weak and that the price of peace would almost certainly be the return of the Golan Heights. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out peace talks, but Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are in favor of finding out what kind of a deal Assad might have in mind -- or of calling his bluff. The White House, however, is reportedly pressuring Israel not to negotiate with Damascus, arguing that to do so would undermine U.S. efforts to isolate and punish Syria.

Assad is certainly no democrat, and the U.S. relationship with Syria is unquestionably difficult. Syria has a strategic partnership with Iran, supports the terrorist group Hezbollah, was gleeful over Israel's setbacks during last summer's war in Lebanon and has not been helpful to the U.S. in Iraq -- though its record on that score is improving.

But productive diplomacy is not simply talking to your like-minded friends. The need now is for the U.S. to press for peace in the Middle East rather than dwell on the undeniable faults of the Assad regime. For more than 30 years, the U.S. has endeavored to coax, cajole and browbeat Arabs and Israelis into forging a durable Middle East agreement. But with a global Islamist revival and a terrorist challenge -- and with anti-Western sentiment raging in Arab nations -- could the White House pick a worse moment to back away from its commitment to bring all parties to the negotiating table? Isn't it worth at least exploring whether Syria might be persuaded to recognize Israel or to stop supporting Hezbollah? The administration should realize that the mere act of talking to your adversaries is not a sign of weakness.

Talking to Assad does not require the United States to lift economic sanctions against Damascus. It doesn't prejudice the U.N. investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which Syrian officials, if implicated, should be brought to justice.

President Bush should send former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Damascus. Baker, a veteran of many rounds of bruising negotiations with Assad's father, has said he favors talking to Damascus. An Israeli-Syrian breakthrough is attainable, and it could jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Baker also appears to believe that a peaceful future for Iraq will require the negotiation of regional security arrangements among Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran. He'd best get started.

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