Does the Road to Peace Run Through Damascus?

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," July 30, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Israel's two-front conflict saw its heaviest fighting so far as a meeting of the United States, European and Arab countries failed to agree on a plan to end the violence.

After meeting with world leaders in Rome, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Wednesday, warned Syria that it was time to make a choice about what role it will play in resolving the current conflict.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The question is whether Syria, which has obligations under Resolution 1559, intends to exercise those obligations in a way that leads to a fully sovereign Lebanon that can indeed control all of the means of — all of the armaments in its country. That is the question for the Syrian government.


GIGOT: Does the road to peace run through Damascus?

Joining me now from Beirut is Michael Young, opinion editor at Lebanon's "Daily Star" newspaper.

Mr. Young, welcome.


GIGOT: Is Hezbollah weaker or stronger, in your view, now, than it was two or so weeks ago when this fighting began?

YOUNG: Well, I think it is weaker in the sense that militarily it has been forced back from the border area. But this is not really a military conflict as much as I think a political conflict.

You have hundreds of thousands of Shiites who are on the streets, essentially refugees. The party’s bases have been attacked, and its military network, but also politically it has taken quite a beating in Lebanon. That does not mean, however, it has lost the battle. It can win the battle if its military forces remain more or less intact at the end of this.

GIGOT: Let's talk a little bit about Syria, because you've watched Syria in its role in Lebanon for a long time. What is the Syrian role and how crucial is that role in supporting Hezbollah?

YOUNG: The Syrian role in Lebanon is to, at this point, to re-arm the militia. Arms, from my reports, are continuing to cross the border to re- supply Hezbollah.

Now, the Syrian role more generally, or what the Syrians would like their role to be, is to be a mediator in this conflict. So that they can essentially gain from the American side, while at the same time defending themselves or gaining cards on the Arab and the Iranian side, which essentially means they would like to put themselves in a position where they can get political cards without having to make any concessions.

GIGOT: So, the Israeli attacks, militarily, on the roads and the airport and things and other transit routes are not cutting off the arms supplies? Is that what you're saying?

YOUNG: Well, my understanding is that the arms supplies are continuing. And indeed, the Israelis, while they have said that they've attacked arms convoys, you know, that's a very porous boarder and my suspicion — and what I've heard, as I said — is that arms are continuing.

GIGOT: Well, a year ago the Syrian army, to great international fanfare, left Lebanon under international pressure as a result of the investigation into the assassination of formerPrime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But that investigation seems to have vanished. We no longer read about it. What happened to that probe, and is it still a factor politically?

YOUNG: In fact the probe has not vanished at all. If anything, it has gone into high gear, because after a number of reports nothing has come out to contradict the initial finding, the first committee report, that Syria had a role to play alongside its Lebanese allies, it seems, in the assassination of Hariri.

So the Syrians are indeed quite worried that this report will come out. It is scheduled to come out at some point next year.

Some observers argue what's taking place is at least partly today the fighting in Lebanon was provoked at least partly to derail the emergence of information from that investigation.

GIGOT: So this fighting may be an attempt by Syria to overwhelm, politically, the reality of that report and to reassert its role within Lebanon? Is that part of Assad's thinking here?

YOUNG: Well, perhaps, it may be a little bit more complicated. I think this fighting is many things, but initially the Hezbollah abduction of two Israelis was, I believe, part of a larger process in which Syria was trying to reassert its power in Lebanon, and marginalize the Lebanese government.

And that kidnapping, by showing how irrelevant the Lebanese government was, was a step in the direction, as I said, of marginalizing the government.

And of course, if you marginalize the Lebanese government, in a way you are marginalizing also the investigation of the Hariri's murder, because the Lebanese government is the one propelling that forward.

GIGOT: Here in the United States, there's a lot of talk now that the United States needs to go into direct one-on-one talks with Bashar Assad and that's the only way this conflict can end in a satisfactory way and this — using the Egyptians and Saudis as intermediaries just won't work. The U.S. needs to talk one on one. What do you think of that idea?

YOUNG: Yes, I saw Les Gelb wrote something along those lines today. I think the people who argue this line have no memory, essentially.

The fact is that Hezbollah, its military force was built up under Syria. The notion is that you isolate Iran by talking to the Syrians. But the fact of the matter is the Syrians have no intention of breaking with Iran. What they will do is they will try to draw as much as they can from the Americans.

And what they will specifically draw is that they will ask for, I believe, an end to the investigation of Hariri's murder. They will ask for a return to their influence in Lebanon and they will certainly not give up on Iran. And they will certainly not give up on Hezbollah, because once you did that, what's the relevance of Syria?

In other words, once they've given up the one card that they can offer you, namely neutralizing Hezbollah, they are irrelevant. So I don't quite understand where these proposals are supposed to lead.

GIGOT: What you're saying is that you don't believe you can give — the United States has much to give Syria other than just handing them a large political victory here for having sponsored Hezbollah.

YOUNG: Certainly, No. 1, and the fact of the matter is the United States, this notion that you can isolate Iran by breaking Syria away from them is ludicrous. The Syrians feel very vulnerable. They will not give up on their Iranian alliance.

Paradoxically, I would be much more open to opening lines to Iran to isolate Syria in Lebanon, that's where I think you should investigate.

After all, the United States has considered the idea of dealing with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps you can bargain in Lebanon to isolate Syria, but you're not going to isolate Iran by dealing with Syria.

GIGOT: All right, Michael Young, fascinating insights. Thank you very much for being here.

YOUNG: Thanks having me.

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