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Syria is key to peace

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SCOTT JAGOW: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Rome today for an international conference. She’s getting an earful from almost every country there. They want the US to call for an immediate end to the violence between Israel and Hezbollah. But Rice says a ceasefire is no good, unless it’s a permanent one. Syria wasn’t invited to this conference, but commentator Reza Aslan says the US should look in that direction.

REZA ASLAN: Most analysts agree that the path to peace in Lebanon goes through Damascus, but Syria is arguably the most isolated country in the Middle East. In fact, Iran is probably the only friend Syria’s got right now.

But make no mistake: The alliance between Tehran and Damascus is a marriage of convenience, not ideology.

Syria’s avowedly secularist government remains deeply antagonistic toward the radical Islamist policies of Iran’s clerical regime. The Bush Administration recognizes this and has begun looking for ways to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.

Iran has shown it cannot be cowed into changing its policies. But Syria has repeatedly proven susceptible to international pressure. It was forced to withdraw from Lebanon last year. And it has submitted to the embarrassing UN investigation into the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

Syria can be pressured into stopping its support for Hezbollah. Syria can even be pried away from Iran. But only if it feels it’s in its best interest to do so.

That means offering to unfreeze the assets of Syrian officials and peeling back US sanctions on Syria’s banks.

Both steps would go a long way toward persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he no longer needs proxies like Hezbollah to protect his interests in the region.

In short, Syria must be convinced that it can have a far more beneficial relationship with Washington than it can with Tehran.

Of course, that is a message that can only be conveyed directly by the US. And thus far, the Bush Administration has refused to engage the Syrian government in direct dialogue.

That’s not a good idea.

The key to solving the escalating crisis in Lebanon is not to further isolate Syria, but to isolate it from Iran.

SCOTT JAGOW: Reza Aslan is the author of the book “No God but God.” In Los Angeles, I’m Scott Jagow. Thanks for joining us and have a great day.

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