In a move signaling a significant change in US policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with her Syrian counterpart on the margins of an international meeting about Iraq.
Though largely limited to a statement of US concerns about Syrian action with impact on Iraq, the meeting opens the door to further contact and signals a new Bush administration willingness to engage even its diplomatic foes to improve conditions in Iraq.
Dr. Rice came to a two-day gathering of Iraq's neighbors hinting at her willingness to meet with Iranian officials, who are seen as perhaps the most important outside influence on Iraq. But as the meeting opened Thursday, US officials were playing down prospects for that meeting and talking up the likelihood – and utility – of a meeting with the Syrians.
Rice's meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem focused on security issues, specifically, US concerns over the destabilizing influence of a porous Syrian border with Iraq, according to State Department officials.
Mr. Moalem told reporters that the meeting was "frank and constructive" and indicated that it was limited to Iraq. At the same time, US military officials in Baghdad said at a press conference that they were seeing indications of greater Syrian effort to control its border with Iraq.
Rice's meeting with Moalem reflects the administration's decision to step up diplomacy – while not making that the focus of its Iraq policy, say some Middle East analysts.
"They see this as the complement to their centerpiece, which is the surge" in US troops in Baghdad, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Mideast Policy. The administration's thinking has evolved to where "diplomacy is a useful adjunct," he says.
For others, however, the decision to meet is still a distasteful step – though one born of necessity – for an administration that has showcased its refusal of dialogue with what it has called "evildoers."
Asked about the significance of the contact, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih put it in the context of what he sees as growing cooperation to help his country. "What we're seeing is that the stability and prosperity of Iraq can be a point of unity for the international community," he said. That is happening, he added, because of a growing consensus that "the challenges of terrorism and extremism and instability affect all of us," not just Iraq.
No high-level contact since 2005
The US had rebuffed any high-level contact with the Syrians since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut car bombing. The US has sought to ostracize Syria over what it says was a Syrian hand in the assassination – a claim backed up by a UN inquiry – though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied his country's involvement.
Just last month, the White House harshly rebuked House Leader Nancy Pelosi for meeting with Mr. Assad during a Middle East tour. That followed the administration's cool reception of the Iraq Study Group's December report, which concluded that the US should embark on a robust diplomatic initiative, including Iran and Syria, to address Iraq's deteriorating political, economic, and social conditions.
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.
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?' "