The US and Israel have repeatedly accused Syria, and Iran, of being Hezbollah's external backers and the root cause of the fighting between Israel and the Lebanese Shia group.

 

Yet so far Washington has taken no decisive steps to pressure Damascus into using its influence to rein in Hezbollah.

 

With no signs of a definitive military outcome in Lebanon, some feel that Syria now holds the diplomatic upper hand.

 

"Without a comprehensive deal involving Syria, the crisis in Lebanon will only be extended," says Imad Faozi Chweibi, a political analyst and director of the Independent Strategic and Data Centre in Damascus.

 

"And if this happens, then maybe the fighting will even spread even further," Chweibi told Aljazeera.net.

 

"But I do not think Israel will move to that point, as it would be too damaging for the entire region."

 

High-risk strategy

 

Most analysts believe that Israel remains reluctant to widen its attack to Syrian soil, a high-risk strategy that would stretch the Jewish state's military resources and could embroil Syria and its allies - including Iran - in a regional war.

 

"What will we do? Stand by with our arms folded? Absolutely not; without any doubt Syria will intervene in the conflict"

Mohsen Bilal, the Syrian  minister of information

And with Israeli ground incursions against Hezbollah extending deeper into south Lebanon, Syria has not disguised its intent to defend itself against an aggressive Israeli move in the strategically important Bekaa Valley.

 

"If Israel makes a land entry into Lebanon, they can get to within 20km of Damascus," Mohsen Bilal, the information minister, said in a statement on Sunday.

 

"What will we do? Stand by with our arms folded? Absolutely not; without any doubt Syria will intervene in the conflict," said Bilal, who was speaking from Madrid after holding talks with senior Spanish politicians.

 

With the military option thus a considerable gamble for Israel, Washington may instead try to use its leverage over western-friendly Arab regimes such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to influence decision-making in Damascus.

 

Arab pressure

 

For Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs and a consulting editor of Syria Today magazine, this approach has some merit.

 

Syrians donate blood in Damascus
for the wounded Lebanese

"Syria has seen a lot of investment from Gulf states recently," he told Aljazeera.net, "and it would like to keep that investment. This means that the Saudis in particular may have some sway over Damascus, whilst Jordan and Egypt, although they would certainly be received, are less influential."

 

Tabler says that Syria's economic reform process has been supported by the west, especially the EU, whereas its political line has been tied more closely to Iran in recent months, meaning that it effectively has a foot in both camps.

 

Many now believe that to find a more permanent solution to the Lebanon crisis, and fulfil US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's desire to avoid a return to the previous "status quo", then Syria's bridging role is vital for any negotiations.

 

Damascus has already stated its desire to open talks, according to Faysal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister.

 

"We want a dialogue [with the US] based on respect and mutual interest, without giving instructions, and we are ready to help if the United States has the readiness to help in resolving not only this problem but in resolving the overall problems," he told UK-based Sky News last week.


Constantly seeking dialogue

 

A reopening of Syrian-US relations would certainly be seen as a windfall for the government of al-Assad, which for the past 18 months has been under intense pressure and international scrutiny.

 

"Syria has always been for a comprehensive peace agreement"

Mohamed Agha,
editor-in-chief of Syria Times

Following mass demonstrations in Beirut and heavy international pressure, al-Assad pulled out his forces from their 29-year stationing in Lebanon.

 

Later in 2005, a series of UN investigations into the Hariri killing would further discredit Syria. Washington withdrew its ambassador, froze the financial assets of Syrian officials suspected of being involved in the Hariri bombing and introduced a series of sanctions.

 

This may partly explain why the US says it is not prepared to talk to Damascus directly, a point which the local media here continue to ram home.

 

Mohamed Agha, editor-in-chief of Syria Times, the English-language arm of the state-run daily press, says that Syria has constantly sought dialogue.

 

"They have ignored us for a long time, but they cannot ignore us forever," he told Aljazeera.net.

 

"The US and Israel want to impose their solutions at gunpoint, as part of their wider plan to reshape the region and turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate. They want to make separate deals, but Syria has always been for a comprehensive peace agreement."

 

The uninvited

 

Neither Syria nor Iran has been invited to directly participate in the international conference which opened in Rome today, although for Damascus-based analyst Chweibi, this matters little.

 

"Nothing can really be changed without Syria," he said. "These international conferences are nothing more than a political striptease. Syria will have to be involved and will not drop its cards when it is in such a strong position."

 

Syrians take to the streets in a
show of support for the Lebanese

If Syria is eventually brought to the table, through UN intermediaries or using back-channels, analysts speculate that a potential agreement could initially involve a brokered ceasefire with Hezbollah and, at a second stage, a prisoner swap as part of a wider deal on long-unresolved issues.

 

Publicly, Syrian officials continue to stress that a comprehensive peace deal is needed for the region, even though their hopes may be some way from being realised.

 

"If we solve this problem then what about the other problems: the ongoing Israeli occupation of Arab territories, of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian territories?" said Syrian information minister Bilal on Saturday.

"We think there will be no solution to the Middle East crisis without dealing comprehensively with all these lingering problems in the region."