WASHINGTON -- As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Israel today, Bush administration officials say they recognize Syria is central to any plans to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, and they are seeking ways to peel Syria away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.
In interviews, senior administration officials said they had no plans right now to resume direct talks with the Syrian government.
President Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Since then, U.S. contacts with Damascus have been few, and the administration has imposed an array of sanctions on Syria's government and banks.
But officials said last week that they were at the beginning stages of a plan to encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make the case to the Syrians that they must turn against Hezbollah. With the crisis at such a pivotal stage, officials who are involved in the delicate negotiations to end it agreed to speak candidly about their expectations only if they were not quoted by name.
"We think that the Syrians will listen to their Arab neighbors on this rather than us," said one senior official, "so it's all a question of how well that can be orchestrated."
That effort begins this afternoon in the Oval Office, where Bush is scheduled to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, and the chief of the Saudi national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington until late last year and often speaks of his deep connections to both the Bush family and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Rice is delaying her departure to the Middle East until after the meeting, which she and Cheney are expected to attend, along with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. The session was requested by the Saudis, U.S. officials said.
The expected outcome of the meeting is unclear. "We don't know how patient the Saudis will be with the Israeli military action," said one senior official. "They want to see Hezbollah wiped out, and they'd like to set back the Iranians."
But in the Arab world, the official added, "they can't be seen to be doing that too enthusiastically."
Several of Bush's top aides said the plan is for Bush and other senior officials to press both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prod Syria into giving up its link with Hezbollah, and with Iran. The administration, aside from its differences with Iran over nuclear programs and with Syria over its role in Lebanon, also has objected to both nations' behavior toward their common neighbor, Iraq.
"They have to make the point to them that if things go bad in the Mideast, the Iranians are not going to be a reliable lifeline," one of the administration officials said.
The U.S. officials are calculating that pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan might help to get Syria on board.
But so far, there appears to be little discussion of offering U.S. incentives to the Syrians to abandon Hezbollah, or even to stop arming it. The administration has been deeply reluctant to make such offers, whether it is negotiating with Damascus or with the governments of Iran or North Korea.
Nor did Bush sound any conciliatory notes in his radio address yesterday. "For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah and it has helped provide Hezbollah with shipments of Iranian-made weapons," he said. "Iran's regime has also repeatedly defied the international community with its ambition for nuclear weapons and aid to terrorist groups."
The administration's idea is to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, who have recently been drawn closer together by standoffs with Washington. Syria and Iran have been formally allied since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, but historically they were suspicious of each other.
"Historically and strategically, they are on opposing sides - the Arabs and the Persians," Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said Thursday. Now, he added, "the only Arab country to ally with Iran is Syria," a position that has angered Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Some Middle East analysts say it is difficult to envision how the United States will manage to cobble together a lasting diplomatic solution to the current crisis without talking to Syria.
In 1996, when Israel and Hezbollah were also at war with each other, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent 10 days shuttling around Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem before brokering a cease-fire that got Israel and Hezbollah to agree to leave civilians out of the fighting.
Rice has said she has no intention of duplicating Christopher's approach. "I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling and it wouldn't have been clear what I was shuttling to do," she said Friday. "I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante."
Rather, the administration's declared aim is the implementation of United Nations Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese army to southern Lebanon. Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last year, may well balk at efforts to enforce it.