By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 4, 2007 1:00 PM
BEIRUT, April 4 -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Syria's president in a hilltop palace Wednesday in a visit to Damascus that came despite the Bush administration's objections and appeared to underline Syria's gradual emergence from years of international isolation.
Pelosi (D-Calif.), the highest-ranking U.S. government figure to visit Syria since 2003, said President Bashar al-Assad assured her of his willingness to engage in peace talks with Israel. The pledge appeared to diverge little from past public statements by Syria. The visit's more lasting impact may be the symbolic import of Syria's return to the center of the region's diplomacy after finding itself as estranged from the United States and Europe as it has been at any time in a generation.
"Syria tries to read the American tea leaves very closely, and this type of signal is read as very significant in Damascus," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "The way they understand the United States is that U.S. policy changes dramatically. And generally they wait it out until there's a change and then try to recoup their losses."
Pelosi met Assad at his palace overlooking the Syrian capital, then joined him for lunch at a restored house in Damascus's historic district, news agencies reported. During the talks, Pelosi said she conveyed a message to Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready to resume peace talks that collapsed in March 2000. She reiterated U.S. demands that Syria stop the passage of insurgents across Syria into Iraq and stop supporting militant groups.
"We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process," she told reporters in Damascus after the talks. "He was ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel."
In exchange for peace, Syria has long demanded the return of the Golan Heights, a volcanic plateau southwest of Damascus that Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The negotiations faltered over Israel's refusal to hand back a narrow strip of land running along the shore of Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan.
Since taking office, Assad has repeatedly offered to resume the talks without conditions, but Israel has insisted that Syria first end its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which Israel fought last summer, and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, whose exiled leadership is based in Damascus.
After Pelosi's announcement, Israeli officials reiterated those demands.
Syria's relations with the United States were already strained when Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage visited in January 2005, the last high-ranking official to travel to Damascus. They reached a low point soon after when the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador from the Syrian capital in the wake of the assassination in February 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Many people in Lebanon blamed the killing on Assad's government.
Since then, the United States has insisted that Syria end its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, cease what it describes as attempts to destabilize the U.S.-backed government in Lebanon and do more to stop the transit of insurgents to Iraq across its 380 mile-long border. Syria contends that Hamas and Hezbollah are both legitimate political movements and that the United States and the allied government in Iraq have themselves inadequately policed the porous, barren frontier between Syria and Iraq.
Pelosi, who as House speaker stands second in the line of presidential succession, called the meeting with Assad "very productive" and said she brought up those longstanding U.S. demands, as well as the seizure of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah.
"This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria, and we hope to build on this visit," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a part of Pelosi's delegation, told reporters in Damascus.
Before her meeting, President Bush criticized the visit, saying that sending delegations to Syria "doesn't work."
"It's simply been counterproductive," he said at a news conference Tuesday.
But Pelosi's trip was only the latest in a series of visits by U.S. lawmakers to Syria in recent months following the release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report last year that recommended diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. Those visits have come amid renewed European attention to Syria, including a visit in March by Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief of the European Union. The Bush administration itself joined a conference on Iraq in February with Syrian and Iranian diplomats.
Analysts say Syria is in part playing a waiting game, confident it will outlast the Bush administration. But its official media played up the symbolism of the Pelosi visit as a recognition of Syria's role in the region and a break in its isolation.
"The presence of the American speaker of the House in Damascus carries more than one meaning, the most important of which is convincing American officials of the importance of dialogue with Syria and its key role in the region," the state-run newspaper Al-Thawra said in an editorial. "It is also a blunt recognition of the failure of the Bush administration's policy."
Pelosi's delegation also included Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and David L. Hobson (R-Ohio).