Mideast Diplomacy Pelosi’s Delegation Presses Syrian Leader on Militants

United States Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted Syria’s government block militants seeking to cross into Iraq to join insurgents there.
Von Hassan M. Fattah
U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria.

U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria.

Foto: AP

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 4 — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation said they had frank words with President Bashar al-Assad and other senior Syrian officials here on Wednesday, pressing the president over Syria’s support for militant groups and insisting that his government block militants seeking to cross into Iraq and join insurgents there.

Delegation members said that they sought to persuade Mr. Assad to distance himself from Iran, and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has become Syria’s ally in the growing confrontation with the so-called quartet of moderate Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he asked Mr. Assad how someone “of his intelligence and knowledge of the world could have common cause with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has denied the Holocaust and calls for the elimination of Israel.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi announced that she had conveyed a message to Mr. Assad from Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, that he was ready to negotiate for peace.

Shortly afterward, however, Mr. Olmert’s office issued a clarification of his message, insisting that, “although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East.”

To begin serious peace negotiations, the Israeli statement said, Syria must end its support of terrorism and its sponsorship of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations; refrain from providing weapons to Hezbollah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon; stop its support of terrorism in Iraq; and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the government in Iran.

Members of the delegation said that among the issues they took up in Damascus was the case of the three Israeli soldiers being held by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — which is supported by Iran — and the Palestinian group Hamas.

In addition to Mr. Lantos, the delegation includes Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California, Louise M. Slaughter of New York, Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, all Democrats, as well as David L. Hobson, Republican of Ohio.

The lawmakers said they also sought to emphasize Syria’s importance in bringing peace to Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

“We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters after her meetings.

Her visit has been strongly criticized by the Bush administration and dismissed by some in the Middle East as a domestic political play.

At the White House on Tuesday, President Bush told reporters that he saw little point in talking to Syria now. “Sending delegations hasn’t worked,” he said. “It’s just simply been counterproductive.”

Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, on Wednesday seized upon Ms. Pelosi’s comment on the “road to peace,” to say, in a briefing on Air Force One: “Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq. It’s lined with the victims in Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy there. It’s lined with human rights activists trying for freedom and democracy in Syria.”

Ms. Pelosi’s trip, initially sparked by an invitation from Mr. Assad himself and encouraged by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, she said, is part of a continuing attempt to sway Bush administration policy on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

In November, the study group recommended that Washington open ties with Iran and Syria to help stabilize the conflict in Iraq and cool other crises. This month, a group of Republican lawmakers also visited Damascus, calling on Mr. Bush to seek a dialogue with the Syrians.

The Bush administration has resisted the idea of opening such a dialogue, citing its view that the country is a state sponsor of terrorism. It accuses the Syrian government of providing militants with safe passage into Iraq and of interfering in Lebanon’s politics after its army was forced to leave there in 2005. Syria denies the accusations.

Syrian officials have seized on the trip to show that their country’s isolation is waning.

European officials and diplomats have ignored United States objections to meeting with Mr. Assad in recent months, citing many of the reasons Ms. Pelosi has.

“Everyone knows there are different points of view between Syria and the United States,” said Walid al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister. “We are happy that Mrs. Pelosi and her delegation had the courage and determination to bridge these differences.”

Syria’s government-controlled newspapers praised the visit as a milestone. “Pelosi is in Damascus not because she loves this dear city, but because she is aware that it is impossible to ignore Syria’s role,” an editorial in the daily Al Thawrah said. “Now what remains to be done is for the others who are also aware of that to awaken from their sleep.”

Marwan al-Kabalan, a professor of political science and media at Damascus University, said Ms. Pelosi’s arrival here may take the pressure off diplomats and other Western officials seeking to engage Syria.

“This will help give the impression that Syria is no longer isolated in the world,” he said. “So now, you can’t ask the Europeans or others not to visit the Syrians like you used to before.”

Yet many Syrians were left wondering what really changed after Ms. Pelosi’s plane took off from Damascus Wednesday afternoon. Some analysts said they feared that instead of a grand opening with the United States, Syria had become a pawn in an domestic dispute between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Ms. Pelosi, who left for Saudi Arabia, took pains at the news conference to insist that she was not contradicting the Bush administration’s actual policies in the Middle East.

“There is no division on policy between us and President Bush, be it on Israel, Palestine or Syria,” she told reporters before leaving Damascus International Airport. “As a mother I will exhaust every remedy for peace.”

Some local commentators used that comment as a springboard for criticism of Ms. Pelosi.

“There was a feeling that this visit had more to do with domestic politics than us,” said one, Jihad Yaziji, editor in chief of “The Syria Report,” an online magazine, who attended a dinner in honor of Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday night. “If she isn’t going to be very different from Bush, then why did she come?”

Hugh Naylor contributed reporting.

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