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Don't count on Iran and Syria.; Internal Affairs

Former Ambassador Dennis Ross is Counselor and Ziegler DistinguishedFellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and authorof The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle EastPeace.

President Bush and his advisers were not the only ones who wereanxious about what the Iraq Study Group would recommend. So werethe Saudis, which explains why they sought an urgent meetingbetween King Abdullah and Vice President Cheney in late November.The source of Saudi anxiety was almost certainly the widely heldassumption that, to help fix Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton Commissionwould counsel reaching out to Iran and Syria, both of which Riyadhregards as regional rivals. And, this week, that is exactly what thecommission did, urging the Bush administration to "engage directlywith Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment toconstructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues."

Should the Saudis--and the rest of us--be worried? Not if theadministration understands why and how any engagement with Iran andSyria should unfold. Iran and Syria can both be spoilers in Iraq,but neither is the key to Iraqi stability. While engagement withboth countries could represent prudent foreign policy, no oneshould expect that reaching out to Tehran and Damascus will provecentral to fixing Iraq. The same goes for the commission'srecommendation that the administration seek to jump-start theArab-Israeli peace process: It may be a wise move for otherreasons, and it certainly can't hurt our efforts in Iraq, but itisn't going to make an enormous difference there. That's because,ultimately, the problems we face today come from within Iraq, notoutside it.

The key challenge in Iraq right now is to convince the country'sleaders that, if they take basic steps toward nationalreconciliation, we will stay-- and, if they don't, we won't. Ineffect, we have to use the threat of our departure to get Iraqis tomake the decisions they have avoided for the last three-and-a-halfyears on the most contentious issues: sharing oil revenue, grantingamnesty to Baathists and insurgents, settling the relationshipbetween Islam and the state, and determining the scope of autonomyin the provinces. Here, the commission has it right: We can andshould exert leverage, but, in the end, whether or not to act willbe up to Iraqis themselves.

It would be unrealistic to expect Syria and Iran to help much inmoving this process along. The Syrians didn't create the insurgencyin Anbar province, and the insurgents do not depend significantlyon material and manpower coming across the Syrian border.Similarly, while the Iranians certainly played a role in buildingthe Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, neither of these Shiamilitias currently depends on Iran to function. Within Iraq,sectarian violence has taken on a life of its own.

This does not mean Iraq's neighbors have nothing to contribute.Clearly, involving all of them, including the Iranians and Syrians,could be a device to influence the choices of different factionswithin Iraq. But this is not a given: While all of Iraq's neighborsmay fear its collapse and the flight of millions of refugees, theymay also hedge their bets and try to forge their own bastions ofinfluence inside the country at the expense of their regionalcompetitors. This ought to tell us that, if we are contemplating aconference of Iraq's neighbors--or creating what the commissioncalls an "Iraq International Support Group"--we need to prepare itsagenda and aims very carefully. Will the group's decisions need tobe unanimous? Will Iraq's neighbors be asked to make certaincommitments? Will there be a mechanism for ensuring that countriesare fulfilling their promises?

In this regard, Iran and Syria should be treated as part of acollective. Singling them out gives them more of a reason to bespoilers and to up the ante for what they seek in return. We wantthe focus with each of them to be Iraq-- not the nuclear issue withIran, or Lebanon and the Golan Heights with Syria. The more wetreat them as fixers in Iraq--when, in fact, they are not--the morethey will seek trade-offs on other issues. I am not arguing againstengaging either the Iranians or Syrians. But it should be done onterms that don't favor them so clearly. We should be prepared toraise the costs to them practically, not only rhetorically, when itcomes to their bad behavior. To date, with both Iran and Syria, wehave been speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. This needs tochange.

As for the Israelis and Palestinians: I agree with the Iraq StudyGroup's call for a new, more activist U.S. diplomacy on the issue,even if I find some of its recommendations misguided or poorlyworded. (For example, Palestinian refugees are a final statusissue, but the "right of return" is not and, stated this way, wouldprejudice negotiations.) It has been a mistake for the Bushadministration to disengage from the conflict. But our efforts nowshould be guided by what Israelis and Palestinians need, ratherthan by the illusion that Sunni Arab leaders won't help on Iraqotherwise. A collapse in Iraq is a disaster for them. The Saudisaren't contemplating a

$12 billion security fence along their northern border because theyhave no stake in Iraq. The Jordanians know only too well that theycannot absorb hundreds of thousands more Iraqi refugees.

We ought to try to cement a real--not flimsy and vague--cease-firebetween Israelis and Palestinians; or push for a nationalreferendum among Palestinians to clarify where they stand on peaceand to build a mandate for a new Palestinian government to pursueit; or reestablish an international consensus on the principles ofa credible two-state solution at a time when Iran, Hezbollah, andHamas reject the basic terms of co-existence. We should do thesethings because they are right, and we should do them in a way thatis realistic. Acting boldly, as the Iraq Study Group recommends, isless important than acting wisely. The last thing we need is anambitious initiative that proves to be hollow and only succeeds infurther discrediting diplomacy and strengthening those who arguethat violence is the answer. Whatever steps we take in theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict, let's take them with our eyes open andnot because we think they will help us save Iraq. They won't.

By dennis ross