updated 5/24/2005 4:01:03 PM ET 2005-05-24T20:01:03

U.S. relations with Syria are on a downward slide, reduced to “diplomatic contact” in which the Bush administration demands tightened borders to keep guerrillas from spilling into Iraq.

Diplomatic relations have not been officially severed, but U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey has not been at her post in Damascus since she was recalled for consultations after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in Beirut in mid-February.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has steadily stepped up her rhetorical attack, from saying Syria was not doing enough to guard the border with Iraq to accusing it of permitting insurgents to stage their operations from Syria.

Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, told the New York Times last week that Syria had halted military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.

Chill in relationship
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday the two nations continue to have diplomatic relations. But he said he would not describe the relationship as an active one.

“We have diplomatic contact in Damascus, and have some diplomatic contacts in other places,” he said. “You know, here and there, we see them, but I think the important thing is Syrian behavior.”

On that front, Boucher said it was not clear whether Syria had withdrawn all its intelligence units from Lebanon while pulling out its troops. All were ordered out by the U.N. Security Council.

The spokesman said the administration wanted Syria to stop supporting groups that were violently opposed to peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. And, he said, “We want them to stop allowing their territory to be used by those who are violently against the attempt by the Iraqi people to form their new government.”

A senior U.S. official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Syria had acknowledged the presence of only one of 30 Iraqi Baathists believed to be in the country.

Occasional cooperation on al-Qaida
In the past, Boucher said, Syria sometimes cooperated with the United States on the al-Qaida terror network and “there were a few things they did with regard to the border” with Iraq.

But now, he said, Syria no longer was cooperating in practical terms.

Boucher said the Bush administration also was concerned about reports that Syrian security forces had arrested all eight members of the country's only active political forum.

“Syria should be moving more in step with the rest of the region, moving more toward an open society and making the kind of changes its citizens want,” Boucher said.

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