The dire security conditions in Iraq have overshadowed many of the Bush administration's diplomatic priorities in Syria, prompting U.S. officials to focus their efforts here on enlisting the government's help in stabilizing the country's eastern border with Iraq.
The new appeal for greater Syrian cooperation on Iraq comes as the Bush administration is pressuring the four-year-old government of President Bashar Assad to end Syria's long-standing military presence in Lebanon, evict terrorist organizations from Syria and more closely monitor its banking system so militant groups cannot use it to launder money.
But in a meeting Sept. 11, Assad and a U.S. delegation led by William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, discussed those issues only briefly during more than two hours of talks, according to participants on both sides. Instead, according to participants, the meeting was dominated by U.S. concerns over Syria's desolate 450-mile border with Iraq, which Arab fighters easily cross on their way to fight American soldiers.
"This visit was driven by one thing and one thing only: Iraq," Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States, who attended the meeting, said in an interview here. "They brought up their well-known list, and that took 10 minutes, then we brought up our list. But they came to discuss Iraq."
The meeting ended 15 months of near silence between the United States and the Assad government, a primary target of the Bush administration's push to encourage democratic reforms throughout the autocratic Middle East.
The administration accuses Syria of being a haven for terrorists, particularly militants battling Israel over its occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, and of having one of the most advanced chemical weapons programs in the region. Syria, for its part, considers the Bush administration beholden to the Israeli lobby in Washington and set on destabilizing the government in Damascus.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has accused Syria of failing to control its border with Iraq and of not ending its support for Hezbollah, as well as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The United States classifies all three as terrorist organizations, but the Syrian government has backed them and some have offices in Damascus.
Relations worsened in recent weeks when Assad pressured Lebanon's cabinet to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud. Syria, which has had roughly 20,000 troops in Lebanon since 1976, handpicked Lahoud for the presidency. His term was to expire in November.
This month, the United States joined with France to push a resolution through the U.N. Security Council calling for all "foreign forces" to leave Lebanon, but that did not prevent the Lebanese parliament from voting to extend Lahoud's term for three years. Several Western diplomats here expressed dismay over the heavy-handed approach taken by Assad, who several weeks earlier had told a delegation of U.S. members of Congress that several other candidates would be acceptable to Syria.
"It became a matter of arm-wrestling over who was calling the shots in Lebanon: Syria or the United States," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador here. "Once it became that issue, Syria couldn't back down, even if it wanted to."
In May, President Bush imposed economic sanctions on Syria designed to limit trade and U.S. investment. Their impact so far has been minimal, according to Syrian officials and Western diplomats, because the two countries have developed few economic links. Almost all of the $500 million in direct U.S. investment in Syria is in the oil sector, booming now because of high prices on world markets.
"They will not likely hurt the Syrian economy," said Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, a private firm that advises foreign investors in the country. "If anything, unfortunately, they will likely hurt the process of economic reform by strengthening the hard-liners in the government opposed to them."
One of the most serious sanctions involves the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, the country's largest financial institution. Bush accused the bank of laundering money for terrorist organizations and of holding $200 million in accounts belonging to former members of Saddam Hussein's government, funds that the United States wants returned to Iraq. The sanction requires U.S. financial institutions to sever all relationships with the Syrian bank, effectively ending its ability to perform most international transactions.
The measure, characterized by Syrian officials and Western diplomats here as the most severe, is beginning to limit the bank's operations. Abdul Rahman Attar, secretary general of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce, said Western Union recently ended ties to the Commercial Bank of Syria. Several European banks have followed suit, shifting business to three newly licensed private banks that Assad allowed to open over the past year.
Later this month, a technical team from the U.S. Treasury Department is scheduled to arrive in Damascus to examine Syrian banking practices at the invitation of the government. Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, said he believed the visit would dispel Washington's concerns. If so, he said, the sanction could be waived. But he added, "I don't want to be too optimistic."
"I'm not saying there was any actual progress between us" during the recent meetings with U.S. officials, Moustapha said. "They told us they do not believe we have the political will to cooperate; we told them we believe the same thing about them. But there is a political will to engage."
In an unusual move, the U.S. delegation included high-ranking Defense Department officials, including Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the former U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. Participants in the meeting said their presence reflected the U.S. desire to broaden military cooperation along the Iraqi border, perhaps with new monitoring equipment or joint patrols involving Syrian, Iraqi and U.S. troops.