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Defining Syria's Role in Mideast Peace


To find out what role Syria may play in any diplomatic solution to the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, we now talk to Theodore Kattouf, who has served as a diplomat in the Middle East under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He was the US ambassador to Syria for the first two years of the Bush administration. He currently runs the nonprofit America-Mideast Educational and Training Services. Thanks for being here.

Mr. THEODORE KATTOUF (America-Mideast Educational and Training Services): Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: So, last week, in St. Petersburg, Russia, when an open microphone captured President Bush speaking at the G8 Summit, he said - and I'll paraphrase here: there is a need to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop, then it will be over. What kind of clout does Syria have over Hezbollah?

Mr. KATTOUF: Well, Syria is not in the business of giving out money, so I don't think that we can look to Syria as a financier of Hezbollah. Iran plays that role.

But Syria is the facilitator. It is the one that receives, usually, the arms from Iran that end up in the hands of Hezbollah. It's Syrian territory that's contiguous to Lebanon. And it's Syria that was in Lebanon for virtually 30 years, until it was forced to withdraw last year.

GONYEA: I guess there are a couple of questions here. There's the issue of what the U.S. would like Syria to do. And there's the question of what Syria would be capable of doing.

Mr. KATTOUF: Well, Hezbollah is very well armed and supplied. But Syria could certainly cut off the flow of re-supply to Hezbollah, which eventually would be felt, and Hezbollah could not ignore that if Syria took that step. Also, Syria has given a lot of, if you will, moral support. Hezbollah leaders have been welcome in the Syrian capital. Syria has certainly, I'm sure, been willing to facilitate travel of Hezbollah people to Iran and the like. You know they could start clamping down on a lot of activities and show their displeasure.

Now that could call their relationship with Iran into question, if they had not fully explained to the Iranians why they see it necessary.

GONYEA: So how does that relationship between Syria and Iran affect the U.S.'s dealings with Syria?

Mr. KATTOUF: The U.S. wants to split Syria off from Iran. Of course, you have to talk to them first. But, I don't think that can be done. I mean, I think Syria is too suspicious of the United States, and probably feels that if it gets tricked it will have nobody. Rather, Syria would like to be a broker between Iran and the West.

Syria would like to go back to a role that it played sporadically in the '80s and '90s, and be a country that helps Iran understand what some of the West wants, help those in the West understand what Iran wants, and gets paid handsomely by both sides for playing that role - without having to change their behaviors very much. And in fairness, the administration, they know that. And they're, you know, they just really hate getting involved with these guys. They see it as rewarding terrorism, rewarding bad behavior. But if it's a matter of allowing Hezbollah to continue to function in Lebanon or rewarding Syria's bad behavior, you've got to make a choice.

GONYEA: If the U.S. does try to get Syria involved in playing a role in getting some sort of resolution to the conflict, I've heard some say that perhaps the best moment for that to have happened has already passed.

Mr. KATTOUF: In some ways it has, because Syria has some cards in its hands. They like to talk about cards. Well, Syria has some cards in its hands that it didn't have before.

Don, these problems in the Middle East are interconnected. The fighting in Iraq, how can you divorce what's going on in Lebanon from the fact that Iran and Syria are both neighbors of Iraq? Both are accused of making mischief in Iraq, but clearly both could do a lot more to harm U.S. interests than they're currently doing. Far more.

But what I haven't said, I guess, in this interview, is that the United States has not put any carrots on the table for some time with Syria. It's always, take it or leave it, you know what you have to do. I don't want to sit here and say that even if we put carrots on the table Syria would necessarily bite. They might not. But we're never going to know unless we try, are we?

GONYEA: But we don't know what it would take to get Syria to bite.

Mr. KATTOUF: We don't know what it would take, but I'll tell you what - whatever it is it's probably a lot more today than it would've been two years ago.

GONYEA: Theodore Kattouf is a former U.S. Ambassador to Syria. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. KATTOUF: Thank you, Don.

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GONYEA: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.