Syria Called Upon to Soften Hezbollah
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The United States and other western nations are looking for ways to step up pressure on Syria to rein in the Hezbollah guerillas. Damascus has long backed Hezbollah. It funnels arms to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, some of those arms coming from Iran. But it's not entirely clear how much influence the Syrian government has with Hezbollah. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Damascus, and she's been talking to diplomats and other analysts in the Syrian capital. Hello, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
Good evening, Melissa.
BLOCK: Yesterday, President Bush suggested that the Syrian leader - Bashar al-Assad - should make a call, get Hezbollah to stop the rocket attacks on Israel. Does he have that power and would that work?
Ms. AMOS: The answer to that question, as you can imagine, is a matter of intense speculation among Western diplomats here. What they say is that Bashar al-Assad has a personal relationship with Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hezbollah. The two of them have met personally every couple of months, something Assad's father never did with Hezbollah. Assad and Nasrallah - one, the head of a secular state, the other, of a religious political movement - get on well.
The Syrians did have more influence over Hezbollah when Syrian troops were stationed inside the country, but as you know, last year, the Syrian army pulled out of Lebanon after intense international pressure. So that day-to-day, on-the-ground contact has been broken - the influence reduced.
Western diplomats do say Hezbollah takes actions without consulting Damascus. They also say it's Iran who has operatives on the ground.
And I suppose as for Syria, the more pressing question - even if the telephone lines to southern Lebanon were still in working order - would Assad put in a call and suggest that Hezbollah stop at the distant urgings from Washington? And western diplomats agree that while Syria may want to be part of the negotiations at a later stage, it's unlikely Assad would make that call now, with Hezbollah's popularity not only just high here, but around the Arab world.
BLOCK: What do you hear in Damascus? Are the Syrians worried that they could become the next target in this Israeli offensive?
Ms. AMOS: The army is on alert, but life here, Melissa, is normal and lively. The war next door is almost a spectator sport on television. It's emotional, yes, but it seems really far away. There's been enough public statements from Israel that Syria is not a target. Even when there was a bombing raid that came close to the border, Israel made it very clear very quickly that it was not meant for Syria.
According to many analysts now and before this conflict started, Israel does not want to destabilize this regime. They don't want to widen the war and take the risk of toppling this regime that could lead a) to chaos, or b) to the emergence of a strong Islamist group that would replace Assad. The Israeli motto seems to be better the dictator that you know than what comes next.
But many Syrian analysts are certain that Hezbollah will come out of this crisis stronger than before.
BLOCK: And what is the Syrian view of Israel's tactics in this latest round of violence?
Ms. AMOS: They see it as self-defeating. They believe you cannot destroy Hezbollah through bombing. It's too well rooted in the population. So they're betting that the crisis will make Hezbollah strong, and in some ways, them stronger.
No one can predict where this is leading. The bombing in Lebanon has united many Lebanese, especially the bombing of army barracks, which reflects all the sectarian groups in Lebanon.
BLOCK: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus. Thanks very much.
Ms. AMOS: Thanks, Melissa.
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