The Road to Damascus

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

On May 3, 2003, less than a month after Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The visit drove home the tough choices faced by Assad in the wake of Saddam's fall. On the one hand, Powell solicited Assad's support for the Bush administration's road map for Israeli-Palestinian talks; on the other, he demanded that Assad withdraw Syria's 20,000-strong "occupying force" from Lebanon and made thinly veiled threats about what might happen if Syria continued its support for Palestinian terrorists.

Six months later, the administration's pressure appeared to be paying off. In a surprising interview in The New York Times in early December, Assad disavowed past Syrian intransigence and implored Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return to the negotiating table. This was the first time Syria had ever independently proposed talks with Israel over the Golan Heights.

Yet in contrast to its recent handling of Libya -- where Washington persuaded Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up Libya's unconventional weapons programs in return for better relations -- the Bush administration has done little to explore whether fresh negotiations with Syria might bear fruit. In January 2004, for example, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns voiced general support for Israeli-Syrian negotiations but lodged no official U.S. response to Assad's overtures.

The administration's reticence stems from several factors. U.S. presidents are always reluctant to launch major foreign-policy initiatives during election years, especially in high-risk areas such as the Middle East. The history of previous negotiations on the Syrian track of the peace process, moreover, does not inspire confidence. It is hardly certain that either Syria or Israel will be truly prepared to make the concessions necessary for a quick, successful result this time around. And finally, the administration may believe that Assad's overture is in fact the initial dividend of its own hard-line approach, an approach that might produce even more movement on the Syrian side in the months and years to come.

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