Defying Bush, Senator Visits Syria

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

The White House lashed out at Syria yesterday, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) defied pressure from the administration and went ahead with talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Afterward, Nelson said he sees a new "crack in the door" for U.S.-Syria relations and help in stabilizing Iraq.

Nelson is the first high-ranking U.S. official to meet with the young Syrian leader since the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended last week that Washington reach out to Damascus to win help in shutting down the insurgency in Iraq. "Assad clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate with the Americans and/or the Iraqi army to be part of a solution," Nelson said in a conference call from Jordan with reporters. "I think there's a crack in the door for discussions to continue."

Nelson cautioned, however, that he approached the meeting with "realism, not optimism."

Both the White House and the State Department discouraged the trip. "We certainly do not encourage members of Congress to be traveling to Syria," White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday.

In a statement in President Bush's name, the White House said yesterday that Syrians deserved a government grounded in "the consent of the people, not brute force." Bush said Damascus should stop trying to undermine Lebanon's government.

The White House also called for the immediate release of Syrian political prisoners, specifically naming Michel Kilo, Anwar al-Bunni, Aref Dalila, Mahmoud Issa and Kamal Labwani. Bush expressed concern that some ailing political prisoners are being denied health care and that others are being held in cells with violent criminals.

Syria is becoming one of the most intensely debated issues as the United States reviews its troubled strategy in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group urged a new diplomatic push with Syria and Iran to win cooperation on Iraq, a recommendation that led Nelson to meet with Assad as part of his 13-day fact-finding trip to the Middle East.

The recommendation has begun a new wave of consultations with Damascus. Democratic senators John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are tentatively scheduled to meet with Assad this month. Nelson, who serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and has been named to the intelligence committee for the next Congress, met with Assad twice before, most recently in January 2004. Nelson said he planned to brief the State Department and his committees on the meeting.

Syria's recent decision to reestablish formal diplomatic relations with Iraq and open an embassy there have changed the dynamics, Nelson told reporters. But he acknowledged that he and Assad had "sharp differences" over U.S. support of the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which Assad told Nelson he does not back, the senator said. They also had serious differences over Syria's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which the United States considers terrorist organizations.

Nelson's visit comes as Saudi Arabia has launched an effort to head off any U.S. interest in dealing with Syria, according to U.S. officials. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser and former ambassador to Washington, has visited the United States recently for meetings with top officials to urge them not to deal with Damascus or Tehran.

Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was the country's leading reformer and a close friend of the Saudi royal family. Syrian officials have been implicated in the slaying.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, has been unhappy with Assad because of his ties to Shiite-dominated Iran and his support for Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shiite militia. As guardian of Islam's holy places, the kingdom has been concerned about the shifting power dynamics between Shiites and Sunnis, accelerated by the transition in Iraq's political leadership from a Sunni minority to the Shiite majority.

Many Saudis think Syria has betrayed the Arab world by siding with Iran, which is ethnically dominated by Persians, not Arabs, U.S. officials and diplomats say. Saudi Arabia, which faces Iran across the Persian Gulf, also increasingly views Iran as a threat because of its nuclear program and its recent attempts to stir up restive Shiite minorities, including in Saudi Arabia.

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