By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 5, 2007
BEIRUT, April 4 -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Syria's president in a hilltop palace in Damascus on Wednesday in a visit 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, and the visit's more lasting impact may be the symbolic import of Syria returning to the center of the region's diplomacy after being as estranged from the United States and Europe as 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 the city'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 to 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 Middle East war. The earlier negotiations faltered over Israel's refusal to hand back a narrow strip of land running along the shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan Heights.
Since taking office in July 2000 after the death of his father, 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 blame the killing on Assad's government.
Since then, the United States has insisted that Syria end 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 across its 380-mile-long border with Iraq. Syria contends that Hamas and Hezbollah are both legitimate political movements and that the United States and the allied government in Iraq have inadequately policed the porous, barren frontier.
Pelosi, who as House speaker is second in the line of presidential succession, called the meeting with Assad "very productive" and said she brought up those long-standing 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," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a member 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.
Vice President Cheney echoed that sentiment Wednesday, telling an ABC News radio interviewer that Assad has "been isolated and cut off because of his bad behavior. And the unfortunate thing about the speaker's visit is it sort of breaks down that barrier. It means without him having done any of those things he should do in order to be acceptable . . . he gets a visit from a high-ranking American anyway. In other words, his bad behavior is being rewarded, in a sense."
Pelosi's trip was the latest in a series of visits by U.S. lawmakers to Syria following the release in December of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, which recommended diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. There also has been renewed European attention to Syria, including a visit in March by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief. 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).
The group arrived Wednesday afternoon in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for a meeting with King Abdullah.