What Are Prospects for Diplomacy in Mideast?

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares for her trip to the Middle East, host Debbie Elliot talks with Richard Murphy about U.S. diplomacy efforts in the region. Murphy served under both Democratic and Republican presidents and is a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

To assess the prospects for diplomacy, we turn now to Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. He served for more than 34 years as a diplomat in the Middle East and North Africa.

Ambassador Murphy, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice met this afternoon with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and national security chief. The administration seems to be hoping that the Saudis can persuade Syria to end its support for Hezbollah. Do you think this approach will work?

Mr. RICHARD MURPHY (Former Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia): We won't know for a while. I think it's a good way to start. We don't have to lean hard on the Saudis because they are interested in helping end this confrontation and they are very critical of Hezbollah.

ELLIOTT: Do you think the Syrians will listen to the Saudis?

Mr. MURPHY: They have in the past. It's not the easiest of relationships but I think there's an audience there and Saudi Arabia has been in the past very generous to Syria in economic terms.

ELLIOTT: A Syrian official said today his country is ready for a dialogue with the United States over this crisis, and called for a ceasefire, a prisoner swap and the start of a larger peace process.

Do you see this as a significant overture?

Mr. MURPHY: It's the first such statement out of Syria. That was the deputy foreign minister, as I understand it, speaking in Damascus to the media.

It's what I would call a teaser. Apparently he chose the media to signal a Syrian position rather than pursuing quiet talks through our chargé d'affaires in Damascus.

ELLIOTT: Do you think they're serious?

Mr. MURPHY: We won't know until we engage, and the problem is that, you know, at the moment there are probably seven parties to this conflict. We're in touch with three of them: the government of Lebanon, the government of Israel, and the government of the Palestinian Authority. We're not in touch with four other players: the government of Iran, of Syria, and then of the Palestinian Hamas Party, and Hezbollah, of course.

So we need to be engaged. We need to be in a dialogue with adversaries, enemies - not just our friends and supporters.

ELLIOTT: Where do you see it going if the U.S. does not have a dialogue with those four players?

Mr. MURPHY: An incomplete and almost certainly fragile agreement. We got such an agreement, with did last for, more or less, for ten years when Secretary of State Christopher worked something out involving Damascus that worked on Hezbollah for a cease fire then.

But ten years later it broke down badly, savagely, as we're watching events unroll these last 11 days.

ELLIOTT: Now Secretary of State Rice has said she has no intention of doing what Warren Christopher did, the shuttle diplomacy, going to Damascus, to Beirut and then into Israel.

So I'm wondering what can the U.S. do to pressure Syria? Might it be possible to put some sort of pressure on Syria to withholding support for Hezbollah?

Mr. MURPHY: I think it's possible. It depends what we or the international community are ready to offer Syria in return, in exchange.

ELLIOTT: What is the carrot here?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, Syria is very uneasy the way things are going. They may actually believe that an Israeli attack could be imminent on Syria.

ELLIOTT: So some sort of assurance that they're not going to be pulled into the fighting, that they're not going to be targeted by Israel?

Mr. MURPHY: That would be one major concern, no question. And Syria has also become a pariah in terms of its relationships with many European countries, not just the United States. It is not comfortable in the isolation and being forced to, increasingly, to depend on Iran on its only support in the area.

ELLIOTT: You spent nearly 35 years as a diplomat, much of that time in the Middle East. Is what we're seeing happening there today more of the same, or is this something different?

Mr. MURPHY: It's getting more dangerous with each such confrontation that comes up. The weaponry is getting more dangerous, the area is getting more radicalized, and our involvement is such that just at the height of the Israeli bombings of the last few days, news came out that the United States was supplying, on a rush basis, further precision air-to-ground missiles to Israel.

Well, the image of the U.S. and Israel in total agreement about what has to be done is getting deeper and making our role as an honest broker that much harder to achieve.

ELLIOTT: Ambassador Richard Murphy, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. MURPHY: You've very welcome.

ELLIOTT: Richard Murphy served as U.S. ambassador to both Syria and Saudi Arabia.

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