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U.S. Resists Calls to Engage Syria in Iraq Planning

To date, the U.S. has refused to engage what it considers Iraq’s rogue neighbors — Syria and Iran — for help in containing the violence. Iran because of its continued defiance in building a nuclear program, Syria because of its support of Islamic extremists in Israel and Lebanon.

But since 2003, nearly 3,000 American soldiers and an estimated 50,000 Iraqis have died in Iraq either in fighting or in insurgent attacks on civilians and foreign targets. The violence, mostly sectarian in nature, has led to worldwide criticism of how the Bush administration has handled the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

U.S. officials have repeatedly blamed Syria and Iran for allowing arms and fighters to flow largely unchecked over their borders into Iraq. But in the wake of a mid-term election that saw many Democratic victories fueled in part by the war and with the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned Nov. 8 after five years in the president’s Cabinet, the chorus of experts saying the U.S. should revisit its Syria policy has grown.

The president has said he would resist any push to embrace Syria without a pledge from the Assad government to stop harboring Hezbollah terrorists and to close its borders to Iraq insurgents and former Baath Party leaders.

“If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it’s easy — just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not to conflict,” the president has said of Syria, according to The New York Times.

To embrace the regime would be a major shift in current U.S. policy toward Syria. But whether the president can afford to leave the Damascus government out of the discussion, with or without such promises, is currently a hot topic in Washington.

The Iraqi Study Group concluded that Syria’s involvement in the process is crucial. The country, the panel said, must be included if not to help, then to stop hindering progress.

“The Syrian role is not so much to take active measures as to countenance malign neglect: the Syrians look the other way as arms and foreign fighters flow across their border into Iraq, and former Baathist leaders find a safe haven within Syria,” the report reads.

The group also said that Syria’s involvement could lead to stability elsewhere in the Middle East, indirectly benefiting the Iraq situation.

In a Wall Street Journal report, Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and part author of the Iraq Study Group report, said the U.S. should try to persuade Syria to end its funneling of arms to Hezbollah, pressure Hamas into recognizing Israel’s right to exist and encourage the country — led by an arm of the Baathist Party — to use its influence with Sunni extremists in Iraq.

In return for Syria’s assistance, the panel supports a “carrots and sticks” approach, with the U.S. encouraging its close ally Israel to open talks with Syria over the disputed Golan Heights, an area annexed during the 1967 Six Day War and one Syria has fought for decades to reclaim.

For its part, Syria has encouraged the Bush administration to take heed of the panel report, saying American acceptance of its government would “diminish hatred for the U.S. in the region.”

“[I]f it failed to pick up the positive signals either in the report or in the Syrian welcome of what the report has contained, it (the U.S.) would remain drowned in the quagmire and the situation in the region and the entire world would remain unstable,” Syria’s ruling party’s Al-Baath newspaper said, according to the Associated Press.

On Dec. 11, in what some analysts see as a Syrian effort to help bring stability to Iraq, Damascus kept its promise to restore full diplomatic ties with Iraq, reopening its embassy in Baghdad and accepting an Iraqi embassy in Damascus.

“This step means that Syria supports the political process as the basis to preserve Iraq’s unity, regain its sovereignty and bring about the withdrawal of foreign forces from its territory,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Taha said at the Baghdad ceremony.

Whether or not President Bush will respond to Syria’s overtures, or decide to engage Iran, and offer the two countries a seat at the Iraq planning table going forward has yet to be seen.

According to the White House Press Office, the president is expected to give a speech outlining a new plan for Iraq sometime early in January.

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