The Syrian Solution

DOING NOTHING

Despite a flurry of charges to the contrary, the Syrian government hardly "commissioned" Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. According to accusations, Damascus wanted to divert international attention from the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and so it sent its Lebanese proxy to start a war -- with devastating consequences for Lebanon and for regional stability. But Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, was not acting on behalf of Assad when he ordered the cross-border attack. Especially since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah has become much more independent of Damascus. Most likely, high-level Syrian officials did not know about the July 12 raid until after it happened.

Nonetheless, Damascus quickly realized that the ensuing regional crisis could work to its advantage. Although the Syrian government clearly had no interest in being drawn into the war, as the fighting erupted, it began to emphasize just how easily the entire Middle East could flare up if it remained isolated and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict was not solved. Simply by doing nothing and letting the conflict continue, the thinking went, Damascus could prove that its help would be necessary to bring stability and avert a larger conflagration.

Western leaders should indeed take this opportunity to reengage Damascus, recognizing that Syria is a major player that can be ignored only at the risk of continuing turmoil. By taking into account legitimate Syrian interests, they could persuade Assad to work constructively with the Lebanese government and with international efforts to stabilize Lebanon, withdraw support from forces trying to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and prepare his own country for diplomatic reengagement and eventual peace with Israel. All this would also separate Syria's agenda in the Arab-Israeli conflict from that of Iran.

ASSAD'S FOLLIES

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