For Syria, diplomatic swirl means more pressure looms

Forget Iraq. The real action for the United States, France and United Nations this week has been their feverish work, behind the scenes, to solve another Mideast hot spot: Syria.

In a swirl of diplomatic maneuvers, the Americans have been talking to the Russians and French, the French and British have been talking to the Lebanese and _ perhaps most startling of all _ the Palestinians have been talking to the Lebanese, too.

It all concerns Syria and a looming U.N. report that will lay out the facts behind the murder last February of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

That murder, which many Lebanese blame on Syria, set in motion a series of events that now finds Lebanon working hand in glove with the U.S., U.N. and Europe _ and Syria farther out in the wilderness than it has perhaps ever been.

Indeed, as it faces the prospect the United States and allies will push for tough new U.N. sanctions, one of the Arab world's last hard-core authoritarian regimes is starting to show serious cracks.

On Tuesday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanon's prime minister, for example, agreed in a joint Paris statement that letting Palestinian weapons and militants move freely in and out of Lebanon's refugee camps is a bad thing.

It was the kind of statement the United States and allies have sought _ in vain _ for literally decades. Until now, discussing those weapons was a "prohibited" subject, said Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former premier.

For Syria, any serious action on the issue would be a blow. Syria, which dominated Lebanon for decades, has always wanted those weapons and Palestinian fighters in Lebanon as a bargaining chip in its standoff with Israel.

With Lebanon now free of Syrian troops since April, talks like those in Paris, if they eventually bear fruit, could pave the way for more movement on the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate _ movement that would leave Syria increasingly irrelevant.

The weapons issue is just one of several the U.S. and Europe are using to steadily increase pressure on Syria.

As she flew around Europe and central Asia last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also talked repeatedly _ including with Russia _ about Syria's alleged role in allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq, and about the U.N. investigation into Hariri's murder.

Russia was Syria's old Cold War ally and one of the few countries still likely to balk if the U.N. considers sanctions.

Two things are under discussion, officials say:

_ A possible U.N. resolution to expand the mandate of the U.N. investigation to decide what happens next, if Syria is found culpable in the Hariri murder.

_ A possible U.N. resolution citing Syria for bad behavior in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, and seeking economic sanctions.

For their part, Syria's Arab neighbors are mainly interested in preventing another crisis in their region, still buffeted daily by chaos in Iraq. Above anything, they want to prevent any U.S. military strike on Syria.

They also clearly worry that Syrian President Bashar Assad has a weak grip on power and could be overthrown by hard-liners in his own government if he offers too many concessions to the West.

The foreign minister of Egypt, America's closest Arab ally in the region, was thus among those in the diplomatic swirl this week, traveling to Russia and then planning to head on to Damascus to try to mediate.

Syria still has supporters _ Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran, Palestinian militants and a core of support in many Arab countries. But Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly insisted in recent months that Syria must cooperate fully with the U.N. investigation.

Even in the Arab world, Syria is growing more isolated.

Last week, Assad went on television to insist that no Syrian officials would be found to have been involved in Hariri's murder.

The very day the interview aired, however, a top Syrian official who had recently been questioned by U.N. investigators was found dead in his office in Damascus.

The Syrian government immediately called it a suicide. Large parts of the Arab press _ long quiescent toward Syria if not supportive _ erupted into the journalistic equivalent of hoots and jeers. They were, to put it politely, a bit skeptical, AP reported. V.A.

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