Syria Seeks to Assert Importance in Middle East

Much speculation has been aired about Syria's role in the current Mideast crisis. Joshua Landis, a professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, tells Scott Simon that Syria wants to use Hezbollah to get back in the Mideast's diplomatic game.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's little doubt that neighboring Syria has both a stake in the confrontation and influence over the Hezbollah. What isn't yet known is whether, and on what condition, Syria might use its influence. Joshua Landis is a Professor of History in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria. He joins us from Vermont. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor JOSHUA LANDIS (University of Oklahoma): It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And how do you quantify something like this? How much influence, what kind does Syria have over Hezbollah?

Prof. LANDIS: Syria has very good and close relations with Hezbollah. It's not unlike the relationship between the United States and Israel. So Hezbollah's never going to get out too far ahead of Syria and Iran. It would be very vulnerable and would have no diplomatic, political or real military backup if it did. So Assad can play a key role in moderating Hezbollah and opening up avenues of negotiation, and that's been the traditional avenue that the United States has used. When U.S. hostages were taken after the '82 Israeli invasion, it was through Damascus that they were released.

SIMON: But does President Assad have an interest in tamping down the fighting at this point?

Prof. LANDIS: Absolutely. His interest is to be recognized by the United States. For the last - since the Iraq War, the United States has put Syria into deep freeze and has been doing everything it can to crash Syria's economy, to isolate it, and to change its behavior. Syria has not done that, but it would like to be brought out of that freezer and it would like to be recognized as an important player in the region that has all doors open to it.

SIMON: A lot of people, of course, heard the clip of President Bush, who didn't know that the microphone was open this week at the G8 Summit, speaking to Prime Minister Blair and saying that Secretary General Annan has to get on with Syria and Syria has to get on Hezbollah to stop this stuff, if you please. All the kind of by-play about his choice of language to the contrary, is that practical, is that pretty much what could happen?

Prof. LANDIS: Syria doesn't want to talk to Kofi Annan. From Assad's point of view, this would be sending your butler to do the job that you should be doing.

SIMON: Is that what President Assad thinks of the Secretary General of the U.N., somebody's butler?

Prof. LANDIS: He referred to Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, when Siniora was being sent by Saad Hariri, who is the real victor and the son of Rafik Hariri, the murdered prime minister - Siniora was to go to Damascus and to patch up relations between the two countries, and Bashar Assad said, I don't want the slave of a slave coming here. He wants Rafik Hariri to come and patch up relations because he's the boss of Lebanon. And ultimately, the top guy is America, because he considers Rafik America's agent. His eye is on the United States. The United States is calling the shots in the region.

SIMON: But Professor Landis, what's your feeling for, at the moment we speak a number of days into this conflict, as to whether or not Lebanese public opinion has been further distanced from Hezbollah, which is in a sense what Israel was counting on to happen, or in fact are they identifying with Hezbollah?

Prof. LANDIS: What we see quite distinctly is growing identification and the Lebanese understand that the bombing is not going to stop if they turn against Hezbollah. It's just going to lead to Israel thinking that they're going to win a total victory and go after and pursue it more violently. They need the bombing to stop tomorrow and Israel to swallow its pride to a certain degree, and for that they have to come behind Hezbollah and defend it. So they've been backing up - we heard the Defense Minister of Lebanon today say that the Lebanese army might be siding with Hezbollah.

SIMON: Joshua Landis, Professor of History, Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Prof. LANDIS: My pleasure, Scott.

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