Europeans Urge Syria to Help End War

European envoys are in Damascus, urging the Syrian government to use its influence with Hezbollah to help bring about an end to the war. Syrian officials say they are prepared to play a "positive role" — but only after there is a cease-fire. Some analysts and diplomats in Damascus say that if the fighting goes on much longer, Syria could be drawn in.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Several European envoys have traveled to Damascus, urging the Syrian government to use its influence with Hezbollah to help stop the fighting. The flurry of high-level contacts ends a long period of diplomatic isolation for Syria, especially where Europe is concerned. Syrian officials said today they are prepared to play a positive role in efforts to end the war, but only under certain conditions.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from Damascus. And Deborah, I take these contacts represent a significant step forward for Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

You know, the Spanish foreign minister said that the talks were very positive, although he gave no details on how Syria would use that influence. Now the conditions that were set, if you unwrap the diplomatic language, are the same ones that we've been hearing from Western diplomats here, which is Syria wants a more comprehensive approach to Lebanon that includes regional issues.

And for Syria, what that means is they want the Golan Heights back on the negotiating table, and that is a piece of property Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and has occupied ever since.

But Syria has said all along it can open channels to Hezbollah, and then it's up to Hezbollah. But Syria does have one practical influence, and that goes beyond talking. You know, Iran has a very close relationship with Hezbollah, maybe more important than Syria, but Syria can step on the pipeline for weapons that go from Syria over the Lebanese border.

NORRIS: So Syria is setting these conditions. Do they really have the power to enforce them?

AMOS: Well, we will see. Syria has had a ringside seat but not been part of the fighting. Now this will all become a crucial issue when, as people here say, the dust settles. It is certainly what European governments want to know. It is what London and Washington wants to know. Will Syria stop the pipeline after the fighting is over?

NORRIS: Debbie, you mentioned Syria's relationship with Iran. Their alliance seems to have grown stronger because of this crisis in Lebanon. They've long been Hezbollah's main supporters. Do these comments from Syria today put that country now at odds with Tehran?

AMOS: Well, if you look at the comments from both countries, it's an interesting juxtaposition. You know, the Syrians are saying they want to part of the solution. Iran's president was saying something very different. His solution, and he's referring to Lebanon, is “the elimination” of what he called the Zionist regime, which is what he calls Israel.

So within hours of those statements reported out of Syria, then you had Hezbollah officials. They started issuing statements and very pointedly said no Arab government can negotiate for Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. And as you know, he set out his own cease-fire plan in a live television appearance tonight.

NORRIS: Is Syria concerned that the war in Lebanon could widen, that the country itself could become a target?

AMOS: Well, they have been signaling this willingness to play a positive role, but at the same time, they've been preparing for a wider war. The military here is on the highest alert in 30 years.

Now Israel has been saying publicly Syria is not a target, and they said that very loudly in the past couple of days as they massed Israeli troops on Lebanon's border, even, according to the Israeli press, that the deployment was staggered so it didn't panic the Syrians.

But there have been continuing air strikes near Syria's border with Lebanon, and in a speech to the military a few days ago, the Syrian president said it was time to be ready. So there is some worry here that the war, if it goes on, could spill over.

NORRIS: Thank you, Deborah.

AMOS: Thanks.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Damascus, Syria.

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