Rice, Syrian official talk

Times Staff Writers

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syria’s foreign minister at a summit here, the first formal encounter between the two countries’ top diplomats in more than three years.

American officials suggested that more meetings with Syria could follow, an indication that the Bush administration may be changing its policy of isolating a regime it considers a sponsor of terrorism.

However, Rice did not meet with Iran’s foreign minister, who also was here for the international conference on Iraq.


“We haven’t planned, and have not asked for, a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us,” Rice said, referring to the Iranians. She described the meeting with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, as professional and businesslike.

The meeting came about a month after Bush administration officials criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for traveling to Syria and meeting with President Bashar Assad.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who is traveling with Rice, said Rice had called Pelosi to discuss the conference and the speaker’s trip to Damascus. He added that Rice defended the Bush administration’s criticisms of Pelosi. He argued that there was a difference between Pelosi talking to Assad about a broad range of issues and Rice meeting with her Syrian counterpart to say “your actions need to follow your words.”

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was part of the bipartisan delegation that accompanied Pelosi, said Rice’s meeting Thursday undermined the Bush administration’s criticism of the speaker.

“This is a marked improvement to the administration’s ostrich policy approach and a tacit admission of how wrong it was last month in criticizing the speaker of the House and congressional colleagues, including myself, for going to Damascus,” Lantos said in a statement.

Relations between the United States and Syria have been tense for years. U.S. officials have accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq through its territory and have suggested Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon. Officials in Damascus have denied both charges.


The administration also has accused Syria of backing Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, both of which the U.S. State Department lists as terrorist organizations.

Despite that list of issues, Rice said she had discussed only matters related to Iraq with the Syrian minister.

“I didn’t lecture him; he didn’t lecture me,” Rice told reporters of her meeting with Moallem. “The Syrians clearly say that stability in Iraq is in their interest, but actions will speak louder than words and we will have to see how this develops.”

Moallem, however, told reporters that they had discussed “bilateral relations” in addition to Iraq. The two discussed the necessity of developing U.S.-Syrian ties “in a way that serves the achievement of peace, security and stability in the region,” Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported.


Concerns in Lebanon

Overtures to Syria may complicate U.S. relations elsewhere in the region, particularly with Lebanon. U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, in a prime-time television interview, reassured viewers that the U.S. would make no concessions to Syria at the expense of Lebanon. “We will use [the Syrian] influence to promote stability in Lebanon,” Feltman said.

Syria has a long history of meddling in Lebanese affairs, including 29 years of military presence there that ended in 2005. Some factions in Lebanon fear that the United States is willing to sacrifice Lebanese sovereignty to achieve peace in Iraq.


“The ruling majority will not accept that Lebanon pay the price of concessions in the region,” said Elias Attallah, an activist with the March 14 Forces, an anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon. He said his bloc had received assurances from the United States that Lebanese independence would not be compromised.

Addressing reporters Thursday night, McCormack emphasized that Lebanese sovereignty and a United Nations investigation of the Hariri killing “did not come up” during the meeting. They are “not bargaining chips,” he said.

Meeting with Syria but not Iran allowed Rice to placate Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has a growing economic stake in Syria and an interest in driving a wedge between Syria and Iran.

The Saudis and other Sunni Arab rulers have been deeply concerned by the rising power of Iran, which is predominantly Shiite. The violent Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq have added to those concerns.

U.S. officials said the Bush administration might send representatives to take part in planned low-level “technical” talks on Iraq-Syria border issues.

“We’re just going to take it as it goes ... and see what options present themselves,” Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told reporters later in the evening.



Aid expected

Delegates from 60 countries have gathered in this Red Sea resort town to discuss how to halt civil war in Iraq. They are also expected to announce billions of dollars in aid and debt relief for Iraq.

During opening statements Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the delegates, including Rice, that the continued civil war was a result of the “flawed policies of the occupying powers.”

Later, during lunch, Rice and Mottaki briefly greeted each other but did not exchange any political views. “They said hello,” McCormack said. “It was not about substance.”

At dinner, Mottaki left about the time Rice arrived, U.S. officials said.

The relationship between the U.S. and Iran, as well as the wider Sunni-Shiite split in the region, have cast long shadows at the conference.

Even negotiations over debt relief have become a sectarian minefield. Before they make substantial aid pledges, Sunni countries want Iraq’s Shiite-led government to do more to protect its Sunni minority.

Iraq owes about $140 billion in foreign debt, according to Sinan Shabibi, governor of Iraq’s central bank.


Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said Thursday that his country was still in talks with Iraq about forgiving 80% of the $17 billion Iraq owes the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, both Sunni-dominated countries, do not appear ready to forgive any debt, U.S. officials said.


Special correspondent Noha el Hennawy in Sharm el Sheik and Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem contributed to this report.