President Bush’s 2002 definition of the axis of evil included North Korea, Iraq and Iran– Syria didn’t make the list. Given Syria’s actions over the last decade, why not?

Why are now senior administration officials and policy makers ready to negotiate with a Syrian regime that overtly supported Saddam for years; continues to provide a vital conduit for terrorists, weapons and money to pro-Saddamist terror networks in Iraq; and provided a supply bridge for Iranian weapons and logistical support for Hezbollah, while at the same time, being implicated in the killings of past Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and many other Lebanese public figures, culminating in the murder of the anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel a couple days ago?

Suddenly, a new chorus of voices is heard asking us to forgive and forget, or, at least, to have a dialog with the Syrians as a way out of the Iraqi dilemma. After all, this received wisdom says, the Syrians are out of Lebanon as mandated by the UN Security Council. They have allegedly reduced their support for the terrorists in Iraq. The leader of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker had persuaded Syrian President’s Bashar Assad’s father back in 1991 to join the anti-Saddam coalition in the first Gulf war. To paraphrase Baker, the master negotiator and recently dusted off in the role of the new Moses who will lead us out of the sands of Iraq, who are you going to talk to if not your enemies?

In the meantime, the Europeans, including Tony Blair’s government, are claiming that they see signs of change for the better in Assad’s Damascus. Look, they say, the Syrians are talking about peace with Israel and are willing to negotiate everything on the table. The Syrian foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem, after meeting with James Baker in New York, visited Baghdad in an unprecedented gesture to show that his government is serious about pursuing a new anti-terrorist policy. Soon thereafter, diplomatic ties between Syria and neighboring Iraq, broken since 1982, were restored.

So what are we to make of all of this? Should the Bush administration, under siege by Democrats, erstwhile conservative supporters, and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, bow to these pressures and talk to the Syrians?

In principle, talking is better than shooting. And talking to the Syrians specifically can, under the right conditions, be useful. But not just any talking. If we are to enter into another era of interminable shuttle diplomacy a-la-Baker, let’s at least be clear about our objectives and about the cards we hold in these negotiations.

To start with, past experience with the Damascenes should have taught us that we must carry a big stick and a small carrot. The Syrians, despite their propaganda to the contrary, are in a desperate state: their native oil is running out rapidly and they have lost the oil that Saddam supplied them in 2000-2003; their middle class is restive under the corrupt totalitarian Baathist regime; some of their prominent politicians are abandoning the ship: the ex-Syrian de facto ruler of Lebanon committed suicide; and the regime’s past vice president broke ranks and lives in exile in Paris. The special UN envoy investigating their role in Lebanese assassinations is close to indicting some big names, including Assad’s relatives and the Lebanese government is asking for a special international tribunal to try them.

Furthermore, as the Syrians watch the sectarian fight in Iraq they grow more and more worried about a spillover that will bring the crisis to their shores. After all, the Syrian regime is still a narrow Alawaite minority-based ruling over a majority Sunni population with sizeable minorities of Kurds and Druze who might find themselves drawn to kindred communities living, say, in Iraq or Lebanon!

So, by all means, let’s talk to the Syrians but let’s make it clear from the outset: we expect nothing less than full cooperation on choking-off the supplies to terrorists in Iraq, disarming Hezbollah, and staying out of Lebanon’s affairs. In return, we can ask our Iraqi friends to consider reviving the oil pipeline that goes from Kirkuk to Lebanon through Syria and, at the same time assure Assad that we will not actively seek regime change. On the other hand, if they balk, let’s seal the Iraqi border with Syria, let’s encourage the democratic voices in Syria and let’s pursue the regime’s thugs in international courts and cut off their access to international capital. While there is no clear democratic alternative inside yet, let us also remember that time is on our side– not Assad’s. We can wait.