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The U.S. and Syria: on Dancing With a Wolf : Avoid kind of self-delusion that had us believing in Iraq

When Nazi Germany allied itself with imperial Japan in 1936, it faced the embarrassing problem of how to square its racist ideology with its sudden embrace of an Asian power. Hitler’s deep thinkers resolved the issue to their own satisfaction by triumphantly decreeing that the Japanese could be deemed “honorary Aryans.”

That wasn’t the first time, or by any means the last, that politics produced perverse doctrinal contortions. Dictatorships, cynical in their origins and ruthless in their operations, can get away with such things. Democratic countries that take their political values seriously shouldn’t even try. That stricture is worth keeping in mind as the Bush Administration maneuvers to affect political changes in the Middle East.

CAUTION FIRST: The United States, having won Syria’s military participation in the anti-Iraq coalition, is now seeking to engage President Hafez Assad in constructive efforts to settle the Arab-Israel conflict. If there’s to be a peace process that has any hope of success, then Damascus’ participation is essential. But the Bush Administration would be remiss if it didn’t approach cooperation with Syria cautiously. Above all it must avoid the kind of willful self-delusion that not too long ago had the U.S. government believing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein wasn’t such a bad fellow after all.

Syria has not suddenly become an honorary Good Guy among nations, nor should it be treated as one. Nothing in its behavior even remotely suggests honor or goodness. Its government shares with Iraq’s the abysmal distinction of being the most brutal and bloody-handed in the region. Assad, his family and colleagues have maintained their rule through torture and cold-blooded killing on a vast and organized scale. The Assad regime has been involved up to its chin in sponsoring international terrorism and providing haven and training for terrorists. One incident among many: U.S. officials believe that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command, operating out of Syria, was behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people.

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PROOF NEXT: Of course, the world does change and governments do reassess policy. Just maybe, Assad would like to draw a bit closer to the West and just maybe he’s prepared to try to act in responsible ways to encourage the West’s trust. There’s a quick way to show that. Assad could move now to obtain freedom for the Western hostages held in Lebanon, among them six Americans.

Syria’s claims of having tried before to get the hostages released are hard to credit. Syria’s 40,000-man army in Lebanon and its efficient security services control too much of the country not to know where the hostages are being held, and by whom. Syria controls access to the paramilitary units that Iran finances, and the hostage-holders take their cues from Iran. That gives Syria a lot of leverage, if it really wanted to press for the hostages’ release.

Syria, ruthlessly applying brute force, has put a government favorable to its interests in office in Beirut. Simultaneously it has moved to crush those Lebanese forces most opposed to its presence. Having done this, Syria should certainly be able to secure the release of a handful of men whose only crime in the eyes of their captors is that they are Westerners.

Six years ago today Terry Anderson was kidnaped on a Beirut street. He and the other hostages are believed to be held somewhere in eastern Lebanon. U.S. officials think that what Assad craves most right now is to be recognized by the United States as a major political figure in the Middle East. It would not be antithetical to U.S. interests to accept that claim. Neither would it be remiss to insist upon a price for doing so: Syria’s cooperation in freeing all the Western hostages, and a clear end to its support for terrorism.

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