While U.S. President George W. Bush appeared last week to reject suggestions that Washington directly engage the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, pressure in the United States for Washington to work out some kind of accommodation with Damascus is rising.

Though never named as part of the so-called axis of evil, since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 Syria has received the same sort of “silent treatment” that Washington gives to Iran and North Korea.

But Syria’s geo-strategic relevance, particularly after the summertime Israel-Hezbollah conflict and in light of the growing U.S. sentiment for withdrawing the more than 140,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq, is making it increasingly difficult to reject appeals for a new tack.

“In all of the major challenges we have in the Middle East-Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran-things are more complicated without Syria’s cooperation,” Edward Djerejian, former ambassador to Damascus under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently told the National Journal.

The need for Syrian cooperation is an argument being made by Republican “realists” including Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as some of Washington’s closest European allies, notably Britain.

It’s an argument made by Assad himself: “There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria,” he told Germany’s Spiegel magazine in September. Assad has also made recent statements in the media, including the BBC and the Spiegel, regarding Israel and a new peace. (“We want to make peace-peace with Israel,” he told the Spiegel.) A number of prominent Israelis, including cabinet-level members in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, believe that Assad’s statements should be tested, and have called for Washington to engage Assad, if for no other reason than to try to pry Damascus loose from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.

“Assad is very keen to get the Golan [Heights] back [from Israel], but he is even more keen to engage the United States,” said David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and former head of Israel’s foreign ministry, at a Washington dinner last week sponsored by the New America Foundation.

“It is in America’s interest to wean away Syria from Iran’s embrace, [a move that] would also be appreciated by moderate Arabs” in the region, as well, he said, adding that renewed engagement between Washington and Damascus could also facilitate the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The fact that the White House cleared a meeting in New York last month between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and James Baker, the former secretary of state who now heads the Iraq Study Group (the congressionally appointed task force), has added to speculation that Bush may become more flexible, especially after November’s midterm elections.

Asked at an October 25 press conference about his willingness to “work with” Syria, as well as Iran, if it would improve the situation in Iraq, Bush nonetheless echoed the administration’s customary mantra that both countries “understand full well” what they have to do to get back in Washington’s good graces.

“Our message to Syria is consistent,” he said. “Do not undermine the [Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora government . Help Israel get back the prisoner that was captured by Hamas; don’t allow Hamas and Hezbollah to plot attacks against democracies in the Middle East; help inside of Iraq. They know our position,” he declared, suggesting that all of these were preconditions for the kind of engagement that critics have been urging.

Behind Bush’s latest statement, however, lies a familiar divide within the administration.

From the first days of the summer 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, the State Department urged the White House to engage Damascus, particularly after Olmert reportedly asked Washington to enlist Syria in an effort to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah. But hawks in the National Security Council (NSC), particularly Elliott Abrams, John Hannah (Vice President Dick Cheney‘s national security adviser), and Mideast specialist David Wurmser successfully opposed such a move, and Olmert’s request was rejected.

Two months later, when an attack apparently by Islamist militants on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was repelled by Syrian security forces, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs again reportedly pushed for some kind of opening to the regime, only to be checked by the hawks, most of whom have long favored a policy of “regime change” in Syria. In their view, Assad is insincere in his recent appeals for a peace settlement with Israel and his hold on power is weak and growing weaker. That weakness, they say, has made him so reliant on Iran that Damascus has effectively become a client regime of Tehran and should be treated accordingly. Moreover, according to this view, engaging Damascus would not only provide it legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve, but would also undermine the moderate opposition in Syria and, even worse, discourage pro-Western forces in Lebanon that would see it as a first step toward the reestablishment of Syrian hegemony over their country.

But these arguments appear to be losing ground, at least in the public debate, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated and as demands, particularly among Republicans, for “course correction” in Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole have mushroomed.

Many see Assad’s hold on power as much more secure than hawks have suggested. “It’s pretty clear to me that the regime is not on its last legs,” said Dennis Ross, Washington’s top Mideast peace envoy under Bush Senior and Bill Clinton and currently counselor to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Moreover, a growing number of experts believe that Syria’s relationship with Iran is tactical rather than strategic and hence much weaker than the hawks believe. To the extent that the administration now sees Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. influence in the region, these experts say it should be willing to offer all kinds of carrots to begin prying Damascus from Tehran’s influence.

“The United States should convey its interest in a broader strategic dialogue [with] Assad, with the aim of reestablishing U.S.-Syrian cooperation on important regional issues and with the promise of significant strategic benefits for Syria clearly on the table,” according to Flynt Leverett, who served as the NSC’s top Mideast expert under Clinton and for the first two years of the George W. Bush administration. “I remain absolutely convinced that Bashar wants to realign toward the United States,” he said recently.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributing writer to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org).