Bush Administration Explores Possible Opening With Long-Shunned Syria

Syrian and U.S. officials hold two high-level meetings as Damascus shows new signs of moderation.

Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Moustapha

Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Moustapha

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Late in the life span of the Bush administration, U.S. officials have cautiously reached out to Syria through contacts that, until recently, they had shunned because of alleged Syrian support for terrorists and for efforts to destabilize Lebanon and Iraq.

It is too early to tell whether recent high-level meetings involving State Department officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and senior Syrian officials will lead to any breakthrough in relations. But Syria clearly hopes so.

The unexpected moves amount to "a tentative opening," Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said in an interview with U.S. News. He interprets the contacts as perhaps reflecting an administration now disposed to "reconsider U.S. policies toward Syria."

They also reflect a shift in Syrian thinking. Just this week, Syria formally established diplomatic ties with Lebanon for the first time since independence six decades ago, shaking off a long-held reluctance to acknowledge a French colonial decision to carve Lebanon from territory that had been Syrian.

The two meetings between U.S. and Syrian officials took place in late September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. They "created a very positive atmosphere," Moustapha says.

The Syrians seem intent on building on the momentum they perceive. Last week, says Moustapha, Syria intended to send a message by not prosecuting two young American journalists who allegedly crossed illegally into Syria from Lebanon. Instead, they were quickly interviewed and released into the custody of U.S. diplomats in Damascus. "Let us show a gesture of goodwill," Moustapha says.

And this week, Moustapha adds, he expects to seek meetings with both David Welch, the State Department's top Middle East policy official, and William Burns, the department's No. 3 official as under secretary of state for political affairs.

The quick release of the Americans is, undoubtedly, appreciated at Foggy Bottom. But the administration is still professing skepticism about a turnaround in relations with Damascus. A senior State Department official insists that Washington's Syria policy is not shifting. "There is no consideration of changes to our policy," the official says, and there is "no agreement on further meetings." The official tersely described the recent conversations as "limited" in their significance.

The meetings in New York followed what both sides term as "positive" developments. Those include a Lebanese power-sharing agreement, a reduction in violence in Iraq, and four rounds of Turkish-brokered peace talks between Syria and Israel.

The Americans raised a litany of concerns and allegations with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem: sponsorship of terrorist activities; interference in Lebanon; lack of cooperation in the probe of the assassination of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri; extremists passing through Syria to fight in Iraq; and human rights issues, including political prisoners.

"The message is, Syria has a long way to go, and they have to change their behavior in the region and on these policy issues," says the State Department official.

High-level U.S. contact with Syria has been scant since February 2005, when Hariri and others died in a bomb blast in Beirut, Lebanon's capital. U.N. investigators have alleged that Syrian security officials were complicit in the killings. Syria denies any involvement.

Moustapha says he hopes the new contacts will continue and will "let us narrow the differences." He adds, "For the past four years, we have told the U.S. that we want to improve relations."

Moustapha says he found particularly encouraging the administration's support for a Syrian-Israeli peace track, given that U.S. officials have focused instead on trying to move along Palestinian-Israeli talks, where Washington plays a key brokering role. U.S. officials, the Syrian ambassador added, even encouraged him to keep them briefed on Syria's perspective on how those talks are going when they resume.