World and Nation

Meeting With Syrian Minister Marks Shift in Bush Strategy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with her Syrian counterpart in the first high-level diplomatic contact between Washington and Damascus in more than two years.

The 30-minute meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, came in the middle of two days of international talks on Iraq in which the Bush administration is seeking the help of Iraq’s neighbors, and countries around the world, to quell the violence there and relieve Iraq’s enormous debt.

To that end, Rice also tried to speak with her counterpart from Iran, a country that the United States has no diplomatic relations with and that it has sought to isolate and contain.

Rice had planned to approach Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran at dinner to ask that Iran stop providing Shiite militias in Iraq with weaponry to attack U.S. troops, State Department officials said. But he left the dinner, held by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt, before Rice arrived — and apparently before eating.

At the day’s luncheon, attended by diplomats from 60 countries, Rice and Mottaki did exchange pleasantries. Rice’s decision to meet with the Syrian foreign minister and seek out the Iranian seemed to confirm a significant, if unstated, change in approach for the Bush White House to handling relations in the Middle East, analysts throughout the region said. Washington is asking for help, even from foes it has spurned in the past. Under pressure from its Arab allies, the Bush administration has slowly edged away from its position that talking can only be a reward for what it considers good behavior.

Rice’s talk with Moallem, though short, was substantive. She asked that Syria, with its porous border with Iraq, do more to restrict the flow of foreign fighters. Bush administration officials noted afterward that Syrian intercession may already be happening; in the past month, they said, there has been a drop in the number of foreign fighters traveling over the Syrian border into Iraq.

Rice characterized her meeting with Moallem as “professional,” adding, “I didn’t lecture him, and he didn’t lecture me.” Moallem, for his part, said he hoped that the meeting was the start of something more. He asked that the United States return its ambassador to Syria; the most recent ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was withdrawn in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syria, which had troops in Lebanon at the time, has been implicated in the assassination, but has denied involvement.

What was also telling was what was not discussed. Syrian officials said Rice did not raise the issue of the Hariri killing or the plans to form an international tribunal to hear evidence in the case, which Syria strongly opposes.

“We hope the Americans are serious because we in Damascus are serious about improving relations with America,” Moallem said.

Rice gave him a noncommittal reply.

The United States, which considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism, has struggled to isolate Syria as a strategy to change it.