Iraq security drives US-Syria talks
Secretary of State Rice met in Egypt Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Moalem, who called their discussion 'frank and constructive.'
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Until recently, Rice had rejected calls for direct contact, repeating her position that the Syrians "know what they have to do" to help Iraq and avoid isolation. The US accuses Syria of lax border controls that let foreign jihadist fighters enter Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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One factor in the administration's about-face on contact with Syria is the role Syria would play in any relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Iran may be more important than Syria in terms of Iraq, but Syria would play a key role in any Middle East peace effort.
Since the start of the year, Rice has put new emphasis on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was to take part in an informal meeting on peace efforts Friday. Syria was expected to join that meeting.
Another motivation behind the contact with Syria could be the idea of splitting it off from Iran, as suggested by some US analysts and Arab officials. Syria's ties with Iran have strengthened in recent years, especially as the West's efforts to isolate Damascus over the Hariri assassination have grown. But some Arab countries believe a less-radical Syria is more open to working with major powers, especially since it too wants something out of any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Only unofficial pleasantries with Iran
Earlier hints from Rice and others, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that a US-Iran meeting might take place withered as Thursday's International Compact for Iraq got under way. Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki were not seen to make any contact at a session where Mr. Mottaki blamed "the flawed policies of the occupying powers" for Iraq's plight.
The two did exchange salutations before lunch, according to US officials, who added that any further contact was likely to be limited to a similar opportunity before an official conference dinner.
Rice's decision to meet her Syrian counterpart was swiftly condemned in some circles, including opponents of the Assad regime and other hard-liners who see such contacts as rewarding bad behavior.
"Meeting with the Syrian foreign minister will send the signal that Middle East violent dictators are rewarded," the Reform Party of Syria, a US-based opposition party, said in a statement. It will "also send a signal to other dictators with a penchant for violence that the United States will succumb to their will if they terrorize their neighbors the way the Assad regime has terrorized Iraq, Lebanon, and the Israeli people via Hizbullah."
But some experts see the meeting as a kind of public declaration of "put your money where your mouth is."
Mr. Clawson of the Washington Institute notes that both Iran and Syria have said that they "respect Iraq's government" and its right to govern as a sovereign nation. "That provides an opening," he adds, "to go to them and say, 'OK, what are you going to do about it?' "