The unraveling of Syria's Baathist dictatorship provides a lifeboat for the unlikely trio of Kofi Annan, George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac. They need to row together to finish the job of holding Damascus accountable and to surmount the difficult seas that each faces on other fronts.
The joint opportunity springs from the astonishingly detailed accusations by a U.N. investigator that Syria's leadership carried out the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut -- and now tries to cover it up by lying to the United Nations.
The unity shown on Syria by U.N. Secretary General Annan and the American and French presidents in recent days may owe something to lessons learned from their bitter divisions over Iraq in 2003. History does not disclose its alternatives, it is said. But it does seem to provide second chances.
The enormity of the alleged Syrian crime, and the baffling mistakes that Syrian President Bashar Assad made earlier in alienating Annan, Chirac and many Arab leaders, are central factors in a tale that spy novelists could do little to embellish.
But a broader narrative of a failure of dynasty emerges with implications for the Arab world, where rulers routinely pass on presidential palaces or thrones to offspring. Anyone who ever met Hafez Assad would be tempted to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen taking Dan Quayle's measure in 1988: "I knew your father, Mr. President, and you are no Hafez Assad."
Defeat in two wars with Israel taught the late Assad to minimize to survive. He did not overlook details or leave things to chance. And he did not antagonize others unnecessarily. While Saddam Hussein killed foes just to stay in practice, Hafez Assad killed them after efforts to buy, cajole or intimidate them had failed -- and then he moved with efficient, overwhelming ruthlessness.
Bashar seems to have learned or inherited little from his austere, shrewd father. Chirac was ready to take the son under his wing when Assad came to power in 2000. But that avuncular sentiment quickly turned to disappointment as the new government in Damascus floundered. Annan also was reportedly taken aback by the Syrian's inexperience and opacity.
Larger principles are involved for Chirac -- who is intent on upholding Lebanon's sovereignty and historical ties to France -- and for Annan, who has offered unprecedented support by a secretary general for the investigation and incrimination of the leaders of a U.N. member state. Annan's appointee, investigator Detlev Mehlis, seems to have pulled no punches in his report to Annan.
There are heartening echoes in this of the principled stance Annan took six years ago by telling the General Assembly that nations could no longer hide behind sovereignty to torture, kill and otherwise abuse their citizens. His position was denounced by authoritarian regimes, and especially by China, which leads the campaign to block action against Syria today.
Holding firm on Syria can revive and help make his concept of a "duty to protect" part of a broader and more enduring legacy for Annan, who has a year left in a second and final term that has been marred by the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.
After fighting each other over the war to great acclaim at home, Chirac and Bush have each plummeted in public approval in their second terms. Each has been hit with accusations of corruption and illegality on the part of associates, as well as suffering from major political misjudgments. Both could use some success abroad for power and legacy purposes.
So far they work together in effective interaction, with the French pushing for phased condemnation and sanctions in the Security Council while U.S. officials remind the Syrians -- in deeds as well as words -- that a powerful American military force is encamped on their eastern frontier.
The Syrians seem to have gone too far even for their fellow Arabs in eliminating the popular Hariri. Assad got no sympathy or help from a dismissive Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his Sept. 25 trip to Cairo. The Saudis, coping with the shock waves that the invasion of Iraq sent through the region, focus significant economic pressure on Damascus and hope to avoid a widening of the conflict in Iraq.
There is no way of knowing whether similar cooperation could have prevented or ameliorated the Iraq crisis of 2003. But at the United Nations, in Arab capitals and not least in Washington, there seems to be a fresh willingness to try to find a better way to deal with an unsavory regime that hopes to hide its crimes behind an antiquated shield of sovereignty.