It has become increasingly clear that Syria plays a pivotal role in Middle East politics. It has influence over — some say control of — Lebanese politics, and its support for insurgents — “freedom fighters” is Damascus’ preferred term — elsewhere in the region makes it a key interlocutor when trying to solve regional problems.

But that support and its heavy hand in Lebanon have encouraged other governments to shun Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The dilemma was plainly visible when Lebanese demonstrated against suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of one of their politicians while the new government in Baghdad ended a diplomatic rift with Damascus that spanned two decades.

Syria has long considered Lebanon a buffer zone between itself and Israel. It supports groups such as Hezbollah, a militant Islamic group, to pressure Tel Aviv to return land seized in the 1967 war. Successive governments in Beirut have owed their power to Syria and acted in its interests. More ominously, whenever anti-Syrian politicians achieve prominence, they meet grim ends. In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a bitter opponent of Syrian interests in his country, was killed by a massive car bomb. The complexity of the attack suggested Syrian involvement. A United Nations investigation reached the same conclusions: one report blamed Syria’s military intelligence chief and the brother-in-law of Mr. Assad. Syria has denied any involvement.

In fact, six prominent anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon have been murdered in the last two years. The most recent victim was Mr. Pierre Gemayel, a member of one of Lebanon’s leading political dynasties and the minister of industry. His murder was a warning to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora not to cooperate with a proposed U.N. tribunal that would prosecute Mr. Hariri’s killers.

Mr. Gemayel’s killing propelled tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics. Similar demonstrations followed Hariri’s death, culminating in the “Cedar Revolution,” which forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after nearly 30 years.

Then as now, Damascus is using other means to neutralize popular sentiment: Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian, has challenged the Cabinet decision to approve the tribunal. At the same time, Hezbollah has called for a new Cabinet. The party holds six seats but is demanding more — enough to veto policy — arguing that it deserves more representation after battling Israel to a standstill months ago. Hezbollah withdrew from the Cabinet, ostensibly to give it more leverage in those negotiations, but the move came just before the government voted on the U.N. tribunal. Syria and its allies argue that no government can make a decision of such magnitude without a quorum — giving Hezbollah a virtual veto.

Syrian “meddling” in Lebanon is not the only cause for complaint. Damascus’ support for Palestinian resistance against Israel elsewhere has earned it a reputation in the West as a backer of terrorism. Just as troublesome are allegations that Syria has permitted insurgents to cross the border into Iraq to fight the new government in Baghdad.

But if the West has been inclined to take the hard line against Syria, Baghdad has taken another tack. On Nov. 21, Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic ties after a 25-year gap, taking up U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s admonition for Damascus to be “part of the solution” in Iraq. Cutting off guerrilla access to Iraq would be an excellent start. Some observers also consider Syria to be one of the few outside players with credibility among all the factions in Iraq; its readiness to use that influence positively would also signal Syrian readiness to rebuild relations with the West. Since Damascus had originally insisted that U.S. troops leave Iraq before it would resume ties with Baghdad, this shift in policy shows a desire to do just that.

Two questions remain. First, will Damascus actually follow through on these overtures, or are they merely designed to deflect the mounting international pressure to change its behavior? Second, will the West — and especially Washington — respond to Syria? Damascus wants recognition and rewards for changing policy, but the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has been loath to respond: It fears that doing so will reward bad behavior. There is a dangerous assumption that undergirds such thinking: It assumes that diplomacy — merely talking to other nations — is a reward, rather than a means to an end. Finding solutions to problems in the Middle East will require all governments with interests to be involved. Syria is part of those problems — but that means that its concerns must be addressed if there is to be a permanent solution to them.

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