Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP file
An Israeli guard tower, top, overlooks the Arab village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights in 2003.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/28/2006 9:00:36 AM ET 2006-07-28T13:00:36
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

A trip to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights feels like a visit to a sacred war shrine. Journalists are treated like VIPs, with motorcycle escorts into and out of the area.

Quneitra, once the regional capital of the Golan, feels like a ghost town with its bombed-out homes and shops, destroyed churches and mosques. There are more sheep than Syrians.

Almost 40 years after losing the upper reaches of this strategic high ground to Israeli forces, the territory that remains in Syrian hands is unchanged.

The old town feels eerily like a 1967 frontline while the “courageous resistance” of former president Hafez al-Assad, who defended this line against a barrage of Israeli air strikes and artillery in the subsequent 1973 war, is memorialized in patriotic murals and bright Syrian flags.

A painted sign in English and Arabic on the façade of what was once the Golan Hospital is riddled with bullet holes and reads, "Destructed by the Zionists and turned into a firing target."

Clearly, Syria has never got over the loss of this 3,000-foot perch overlooking Israel's northern expanse. Getting it back has become a national quest. That is why the Golan is in many ways the ultimate prize in a sensitive game of diplomatic feints with the U.S. and Israel on the one hand, and Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers on the other.

Officially, the U.S. has frozen out Syria, and promises, at least publicly, more of the same treatment if Damascus continues to side with Hezbollah. Syria figures high on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring nations.

Meantime, U.S. economic sanctions have halted business with Syria's largest bank and prevent the import of U.S. goods. Diplomatic relations are at a two-year low, with a skeletal U.S. mission about to lose its chargé d'affaires. The U.S. ambassador to Syria left in February 2005, after the pro-democracy Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive car bomb in Beirut, which was blamed on Syrian intelligence agents.

Syria  'looking to be respected'
But behind the scenes, a flurry of diplomatic activity is going on in Damascus, with visits and phone calls from a number of moderate Arab governments, as well as the United Nations and European Union, all trying to coax President Bashar al-Assad to break his “marriage of convenience” with Iran and squeeze off the weapons “pipeline” that travels from Iran, through Syria, and into the hands of Hezbollah fighters in southern and eastern Lebanon.

After so much political isolation, can such an effort actually succeed? Surprisingly, many analysts here think it’s possible, given the right incentives.

“Syrians are very eager to do business with the United States,” said Andrew Tabler, the editor-in-chief of Syria's only independent news magazine, Syria Today.

“It just depends on the conditions. They've been cornered for the better part of two years. I think they could now be brought out,” said Tabler, a Pennsylvania native who can be now found in his modest but modern office in Damascus. “They are looking to be respected, I think, and talked to directly.”

Some analysts say that the next week or two will be crucial. Bashar al-Assad can go in either direction, either strengthening his ties with Hezbollah if the war goes badly for Israel, or exerting considerable leverage over Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, if group takes big hits on the battlefield.

“So the Syrians are playing a clever game here,” says Col. Michael Dewar, a military analyst and former deputy director of London's International Institute of Strategic Studies. “They are tightrope walking, trying to engage America and trying to become a broker, if you like, in the region in this struggle.”

No one here is making any predictions for now. But most foreign observers agree that the current crisis in Lebanon is a golden opportunity for Syria to reassert itself on the regional map.

“I think at the moment we're looking at a turning point,” said Tabler. “It just depends on which way it turns.”

It would seem that even Washington has come to the conclusion — however reluctantly — that when it comes to forging some kind of deal to end the fighting in Lebanon, all roads lead to Damascus. And for the Syrians those roads must pass through the Golan Heights.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News London correspondent currently on assignment in Damascus. He was based in the Middle East from 1981-1984.

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