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Engage Syria At Your Own Peril

A column by the opinion editor of Lebanon's The Daily Star takes aim at calls from outside Lebanon to 'open a window to Syria.' The entire column is excellent, though we will cut directly to the conclusion.

But perhaps the best reason to keep isolating Syria is Lebanon. Assad's deepest desire is to re-establish Syrian hegemony over the country. One reason for this, aside from Lebanon's ability to again grant Syria regional relevance, is the United Nations' investigation of Hariri's assassination.

All the signs are that Syria will be accused of the crime, which could bring down the Assad regime. By dominating Lebanon, the Syrian president could stifle the investigation, which relies heavily on Lebanese judicial cooperation.

More generally, Assad would exploit any Western opening in order to seize power in Lebanon through his Lebanese allies, against the majority that forced a Syrian withdrawal last year. If this were to succeed, who would be the Praetorian Guard of that new order? Hizbullah. The party could, thus, preserve its autonomy, marginalize its domestic adversaries, and thrive under Syria's sympathetic eye. This factor alone explains why Syria would never accept to diminish Hizbullah's power. As Syria plots a return to Lebanon, it has no intention of harming its main ally in that venture.

This is no time to engage Syria. If anything, it is time to warn Syria that, because it sits at the nexus point of regional instability - in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and even Jordan - it had better alter its behavior, or the US may seriously think about ways of finding an alternative to Assad. This need not be done by war, of course. Yet unless the Bush administration finds credible means to force "behavior change instead of regime change" in Damascus, it might soon find that war is inevitable.