WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (JTA) -- Virtually everyone in Washington agrees that Syria is a weak state. But differences arise over whether its peace feelers to Israel and the West are a genuine white flag or just a feint to entrap its stronger enemies.
A seminar Monday at the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace outlined those differences in the wake of the likelihood that a congressionally mandated commission will recommend engagement with Syria, currently a pariah state, as one means of reining in Iraq's burgeoning civil war.
"Syria is fundamentally a weak state that has very little to offer the United States and very little to offer its neighbors, either in peace or in war," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
Engaging Syria would embolden its ambitions to reassert control over Lebanon, Satloff said, handing an unthinkable victory to the region's radicals.
But Robert Malley, a Clinton administration peace negotiator, said engagement would have the opposite effect.
"The mere sight of Israeli and Syrian officials sitting side-by-side and negotiating at a time when rejectionist ideology is spreading throughout the region -- imagine the impact that would have!" he said.
The core of the debate is assessing Syria's seriousness about the endgame. The fear among Israelis is that talking only buys Syria time to gain strength.
In an interview last week at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Imad Moustapha said Syria's interests lie in comprehensive peace negotiations.
"We are offering Israel a comprehensive peace," Moustapha told JTA. "It will be a very different context, an Israel who is not occupying our territories anymore, an Israel who will allow the Palestinians to have their sovereign free state. Comprehensive peace, total normalization of relations: This is our strategy, this is our vision."
Israelis have made clear that they expect more than words from Syria: They want a crackdown on terrorist groups finding safe harbor in Damascus, including the more extreme wing of Hamas led by Khaled Meshaal, and an end to support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist army that launched a war against Israel this summer.
"We would love to be able to have negotiations with Syria, but that must be based on a certain reasonable, responsible policy, which is not performed by Syria for the time being," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier this month after meeting with President Bush in Washington.
"Everything that they are doing is to the other direction -- in Lebanon, in Iraq, and the sponsorship of Hamas and Khalid Meshaal as the main perpetrators of terror against the State of Israel," Olmert said.
Bush has been supportive. Outlining his vision for the NATO alliance Tuesday in Riga, Latvia, he included Syria among international threats.
"The regime allows Iranian weapons to pass through its territory into Lebanon, and provides weapons and political support to Hezbollah," the president said.
Still, the Baker-Hamilton commission could bring pressure to bear on Bush to change that tone.
The commission, now debating its recommendations and slated to present them to the White House before year's end, reportedly has agreed on the need to engage Syria, which has extensive intelligence about Iraq, and Iran, which has considerable influence with Iraq's Shi'ites.
Bush is under no obligation to act on the report, but will be under considerable political pressure to do so, not least because his father's secretary of state, James Baker, heads the commission.
Commissioners have met three times with Moustapha, and he seemed cheered by the prospects of what the commission would recommend. For one thing, he said, there was no talk of drawing Syria away from Iran's influence, a prospect he dismissed.
"I don't think the Baker-Hamilton report will discuss the notion about creating a rift between Syria and Iran," he said. "The guys on the Iraq study group are more sophisticated and more learned than to make such naive policy positions."
Iran would not prevent Syria from pursuing peace with Israel, Moustapha said, despite Iran's rejection of Israel's existence.
"It's not this bizarre image of Syria and Iran, two countries in isolation toward the rest of the world and entrenched in one position," he said. "We respect that Iran has its own national interests to look for, to sustain and to promote, and they respect that we have our own national interests to promote."
Moustapha dismissed the demand that Syria drop its support for Hezbollah and Hamas as "details" and "pretexts."
"Once there is a context for peace, the whole paradigm will change," he said.
Malley, the former Clinton administration negotiator, said it was unrealistic to expect Syria to abandon the terrorist groups, but said re-engagement could persuade Damascus "to use its leverage with Hezbollah and Hamas in constructive ways."
The debate comes as there are pressures in Israel from top officials -- including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Amos Yadlin, the military intelligence chief -- to at least feel out Syria.
Engaging Syria could weaken the axis between Iran and the terrorist groups it sponsors, said Shlomo Aronsohn, a Hebrew University political scientist.
"If you succeed in removing Bashar Assad," the Syrian dictator, "from his current role supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, we may have a strategic breakthrough," Aronsohn said.
Satloff, the Washington Institute director, suggested that the reverse was true -- engaging the Palestinians would further isolate Syria, which in turn might moderate Assad. He hailed Olmert for employing just such a strategy in offering this week to restart negotiations with the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.
"If we concretize the outreach Israelis are making to Abbas and the moderate Arab states, we can concretize the pressure" on Syria, he said.
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