By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 8:46 PM
Syria needs to pressure Iran and Hezbollah to rein in their activities in Lebanon if it wants to rebuild relations with the United States, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East said in an interview.
"Syria and the United States have taken some modest steps to see if we can improve the bilateral relationship," said Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "But this cannot go very far as long as Syria's friends are undermining stability in Lebanon. We have made that absolutely clear to the Syrians. There is a cost to the potential in our bilateral relationship to what Syria's friends are doing in Lebanon."
Tensions have been running high in Lebanon in recent weeks as a U.N.-mandated tribunal nears completion of its investigation into the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. The investigation is expected to indict Hezbollah members, and the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, last week warned Lebanon against cooperating with the probe. Syria has also denounced the tribunal.
There are growing concerns about Lebanon's political stability. The coalition government of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, appears fragile. Meanwhile, a triumphal visit to Lebanon last month by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made a provocative tour of the border with Israel, has alarmed some in the region.
Feltman's comments came just days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lashed out at Washington, accusing it of sowing chaos across the world. "Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?" Assad said in an interview with al-Hayat newspaper, referring to U.S. intervention in Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
The Obama administration has dispatched numerous envoys to meet with Assad in an effort to wean him away from the Iranian camp and to draw him into peace talks with Israel. Feltman discounted Iranian influence on Syria, saying that unless Damascus mends relations with Washington, it has no chance of winning the return of the Golan Heights, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"Syria has said that it wishes to have its territorial expectations met through a peace agreement with Israel and that Syria recognizes the essential role that we can play in achieving that," Feltman said. "So this suggests to me that Syria is in fact interested in a better relationship with us. But our interests in a comprehensive peace doesn't mean that we are going to start trading our other interests in Iraq or Lebanon in order to get Damascus to like us better."
Feltman said that the administration is "deeply concerned" about Lebanon. He described his recent visit there as a show of support for President Michel Suleiman and a reaffirmation of U.S. support for the tribunal's work. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also recently called Suleiman, who has the difficult job of managing Lebanon's deeply polarized political space.
Feltman said that given such divisions, it was important for the United States and others "to show there is not a vacuum on the other side" and support the viability of the Lebanese state. "No matter how much Hezbollah huffs and puffs, the special tribunal for Lebanon's work continues," he said.
But Feltman refrained from naming any consequences for Syria and Iran if they undermine the Lebanese government, except to say that Syria risked losing an opportunity to improve ties with Washington. Syria in recent years has also rebuilt relations with Saudi Arabia and France - both of which had shunned Damascus after Hariri's killing - and those ties could also suffer if the Lebanese government collapses.
Feltman rejected the notion that Ahmadinejad's visit would have long-lasting effects. He noted that Ahmadinejad was in trouble back home, suggesting that his trip was part of "the age-old custom of leaders, of when they have troubles at home, [who] tend to try to dabble in foreign policy and stage some sort of triumphant foreign tour."
Feltman also pushed back against the theory that Syria has spurned Obama's entreaties because it believes Iran is winning power and influence in the region. "I hear these tales that Iran is winning in Iraq, but I don't see any examples of the facts supporting that argument," he said, ticking off setbacks that he said Iran had suffered in its effort to influence the shaping of the new Iraqi government.