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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 18:16 GMT
Syria welcomes chance to participate
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Amman

Syria's foreign minister Walid Moallem
Syria's foreign minister recently spoke with James Baker in New York
For the Syrian government this is a great opportunity to escape the isolation imposed by Washington and the West.

At least that is the view from Damascus of the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, which is calling on Washington to re-open dialogue with Syria and Iran.

"Syria has now demonstrated once again that it is a key player in the Middle East," explained Prof Marwan Karbalan of Damascus University.

"Without Syrian support and help the United States cannot stabilise the whole region."

'Horrible problem'

And the Syrian government can hardly disguise its glee.

"Syria is part of the solution, not part of the problem," argued the Information Minister Mohsin Bilal.

"We are a partner to help to solve that horrible problem."

The minister said one of the two co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker, had a long and "interesting" conversation with the Syrian foreign minister in New York recently.

It was now for President Bush to be convinced about "the reality".

But things may not be quite that simple.

Hezbollah link

US soldier near Iraq's border with Syria
It may be too late to close the Syria-Iraq border to insurgents

The Bush administration regularly complains that Syria is not doing enough to help fight the insurgents in Iraq.

One new report in Washington claims there are now links between Hezbollah - the Syrian-supported militants in Lebanon - and the Iraqi insurgents.

Damascus denies all Washington's accusations.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is a growing consensus that the insurgency in Iraq is now self-supporting.

Indeed some observers believe the insurgents are making so much money from extortion and racketeering that they are making an unhealthy profit.

So, however tightly shut the Syrian-Iraqi border, it may not make much difference.

Lebanon influence

In any case Syria has made it clear that any assistance would come at a price.

Hezbollah supporter
The Bush administration sees Hezbollah as an enemy

Damascus wants a revival of the Middle East peace process, and talks with Israel.

More immediately, it wants more of a free hand in neighbouring Lebanon.

For Washington that sounds all rather expensive.

Add on to that the Bush administration's black and white view of the world, an approach that has led to extreme reluctance to negotiate with any of America's enemies.

It means the chances of the American secretary of state jumping on the next plane to Damascus are not very good.

Indeed a senior administration official, briefing White House reporters just before the Iraq Study Group report was released, once again stressed that there were no plans for direct talks with either Syria or Iran.

That does not rule out a proposal put forward by the Iraqi prime minister this week for a regional conference.

Find a large enough table, and keep them far enough apart, then perhaps the United States, Syria and Iran may be prepared to sit down together.

But even that seems a long way away.




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