Free Assad

To weaken the front against him, Bush aspires to release Syrian President Bashar Assad from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embrace. A signal from Assad about a less anti-American policy will find an ear in Washington.

The head of American intelligence, Admiral (ret.) Mike McConnell, revealed a secret a week ago: Hezbollah sleeper cells are waiting in the United States for the order to carry out terror attacks. The unclassified version of the intelligence assessment, the one distributed to the public, has been stating for years that Hezbollah has the ability and intentions to act against American targets and assets. However, this description has been vague enough to deceive the public into thinking that attacks are expected only in Lebanon and other places in the Middle East. McConnell, who crafted his speech on the fly while on the way from the White House to another location in Washington, tripped up and let slip what the American intelligence community had discovered from its sources and was trying to hide.

The difference between the two versions is significant for the American citizen. Attacks on his soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other ends of the earth have become routine. This is not the case if inside America they are on the alert for terror acts by underground cells.

Ostensibly, it is a considerable intelligence achievement if the Central Intelligence Agency has acquired information about Hezbollah's emergency plans. On the day the attacks come, the surprise will not be total.

But this is a deterrent rather than a warning, and the true achievement belongs to Hassan Nasrallah, his operations officer Imad Morniyeh, and the dispatchers in Tehran who want to frighten Washington to the point of thwarting a military initiative against them. In this complex game, the big winner could well be Syria.

The expected trigger for Hezbollah attacks, both in the secret assessment and the censored version, is if America or Israel crosses what McConnell calls a "red line" as far as Hezbollah is concerned: an attack on Iran. A response to this will shed American blood. Politicians will have to explain to the public, the day after a bombing in Iran and reprisals in Detroit or Los Angeles, why it has brought down this unnecessary trouble, which intelligence had warned about, on the tranquil civilians between the two oceans.

The recent past has taught the Iranians that the Americans, like cold business people, tend to cut their losses and get rid of failed investments. They were defeated and they surrendered after the takeover of the embassy in Tehran. Two attacks on the embassy in Beirut and one on the Marines at the airport at Khaldeh expelled the Sixth Fleet from Lebanon's shores. The kidnapping of its citizens led the Americans, with Israel's help, to sell arms to the Iranians in their war against the Iraqis. You don't have to be Pavlov to recognize a behavior pattern here.

This is precisely why Syria is so important to the administration of President George W. Bush in its ability to influence important sectors: Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. The administration's top priority this quarter, which ends in September, is in Baghdad. The report by the commander of the forces there, General David Petraeus, is due on the implementation of American policy in Iraq. These efforts are characterized by an escalation meant to improve the situation; achieving victory there is an illusion that has long been abandoned. The forces have been beefed up and have been leaving their bases in attempts to kill their enemies. The result has been an increase in the number of American casualties, many of them because of the expertise that has been flowing in from Iran, whether directly or via Hezbollah and through the Syrian border.

To weaken the front against him, Bush aspires to release Syrian President Bashar Assad from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embrace. A signal from Assad about a less anti-American policy will find an ear in Washington, in the spirit of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report last fall.

It could be that a real renewal of a Jerusalem-Washington-Damascus dialogue will come only after the stabilization of new administrations in Israeli and America. An especially intriguing possibility could be a Clinton-Assad-Barak trio, with Hillary instead of Bill, Bashar instead of Hafez and the new Ehud, an embodiment of the old Ehud. But even during the period the Bush administration has left, it is worth relating to the messages being exchanged in the American-Syrian channel not as expressions of rigid hostility, but as bargaining stages.