Syria Seen as Key to Peace in Lebanon

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Israel has accused Syria of providing support and weapons to Lebanon's Hezbollah militants. Many observers believe that Syria will have to be engaged in negotiations if the crisis in Lebanon is to be solved.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie. In Russia today, the world's eight most powerful nations, known as the G-8, found unexpected unity on the Middle East crisis. In a statement after their meeting, the G-8 leaders called for an end to deadly cross-border attacks, calling on Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas to halt the violence. But this was unity at a price. The G-8 countries stopped short of calling for a ceasefire, or of naming Syria and Iran as guilty parties.

President Bush and his closest ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, had publicly cited the two nations, who are close allies of Hezbollah and Hamas, as culprits in the current crisis in Lebanon.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Deborah, what has been the reaction to Washington's demands for the Syrians to restrain Hezbollah in Lebanon?

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Good morning, John. The Bush administration doesn't have much diplomatic leverage with Syria. U.S. policy has been to isolate Damascus. The U.S. ambassador was recalled more than a year ago.

For the Syrians, this crisis is a moment of opportunity. It's a chance to break that isolation as they're recognized as an important player, again, in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon. European leaders have already come calling and so has the head of the United Nations, with direct appeals to the Syrians.

Syria has made it clear it does have some influence with Hezbollah and with the most radical wing of Hamas, which does have an office here. So the Syrians could be winners in this crisis. Already they've opened their unusually tight borders to refugees coming from Lebanon; they've pledged money and support to Lebanon. When the dust finally settles, Syria is betting that anyone who wants to do business in the Middle East will have to check with Damascus.

And this morning there was a street demonstration. Everybody was cleared out of the way, traffic stopped, it was broadcast live on Syrian television: college students and government workers were marching with posters, pictures of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

YDSTIE: Deborah, in Lebanon, opinions on Hezbollah's actions are not unified. Some Lebanese have said publicly that Hezbollah dragged the country into this damaging conflict with Israel. Even some government ministers have criticized the group. Are there others criticizing Hezbollah in the region?

AMOS: Not on the streets. I came to Damascus driving up from Jordan and many people along the way told me that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is a hero. For them, Nasrallah has managed to do something no other Arab regime has done and that is to show Israel is not invincible.

Hezbollah is waging a military campaign that's hit deep inside Israeli territory, but they're also running a savvy media war through their television station, Al Manar, which is still on the air despite a direct hit by the Israelis.

And Al Manar has run a series of taunting statements threatening all-out war, showing pictures of the next targets in Israel. This is fast becoming the most popular TV station in the region.

And something else if happening: Syrians and Jordanians are mostly Sunni Muslims, and Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim movement, but those divisions faded as soon as Hezbollah's rockets started to fall on Israel.

YDSTIE: Over the weekend, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia condemned the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, but they also condemned Hezbollah. The Saudis even called the capture of the Israeli soldier reckless adventurism. That is unusually bold language for a group known for making bland statements that display Arab unity.

AMOS: The splits in the Arab world have become more public than ever before. The actions of Hezbollah and Hamas are seen in the region as a victory for the Islamists, and that's what the Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has been saying in his television appearances. This is threatening to Jordan and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia.

So, at one level, this is the autocrats against the Islamists. And by criticizing Hezbollah, the autocrats, especially the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, put themselves at odds with their own populations.

This isn't a regional war, but it is a regional crisis in ideology and how to move forward politically once the immediate crisis in Lebanon is over, however long that may take.

YDSTIE: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus. Thanks very much, Deborah.

AMOS: Thank you.

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