U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday for talks criticized by the White House as undermining American efforts to isolate the hard-line Arab country.
Pelosi said Assad assured her of his willingness to engage in peace talks with Israel, and that she and other members of her congressional delegation raised their concern about militants crossing from Syria into Iraq, as well the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.
The Californian Democrat spoke to reporters shortly after talks with Assad at the end of a two-day visit to Syria.
She said the delegation gave the Syrian leader a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert whose essence was that Israel was ready to hold peace talks with Syria.
She did not say more about the message, but Israel has previously made such talks conditional on Syria’s cutting off its support for hard-line Palestinian groups and Hezbollah.
“We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He’s ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi and accompanying members of Congress began their day by holding separate talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and then met Assad, who hosted them for lunch after their talks.
Pelosi’s visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war.
Bush voices criticism
Bush has said Pelosi’s trip signals that the Assad government is part of the international mainstream when it is not. The United States says Syria allows Iraqi Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory, backs the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and is trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Syria denies the allegations.
“A lot of people have gone to see President Assad ... and yet we haven’t seen action. He hasn’t responded,” he told reporters soon after she arrived in Damascus on Tuesday. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive.”
Pelosi did not comment on Bush’s remarks but went for a stroll in the Old City district of Damascus, where she mingled with Syrians in a market.
Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque. She made the sign of the cross in front of an elaborate tomb which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist. About 10 percent of Syria’s 18 million people are Christian.
At the nearby outdoor Bazouriyeh market, Syrians crowded around, offering her dried figs and nuts and chatting with her. She bought some coconut sweets and looked at jewelry and carpets.
On Tuesday night, Pelosi met Syrian human rights activists, businessmen and religious leaders at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.
‘Better late than never’
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was quoted Wednesday as saying that Pelosi and other members of Congress were “welcome” in Syria.
“Better late than never,” he told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba in an interview. He said the visits were taking place because Americans and Europeans had realized that their policy of trying to isolate Syria had failed.
However, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was quoted as saying Syria was “wary of the sudden U.S. openness” and would respond cautiously.
“Syria will not hurriedly offer concessions when it refused to offer them under much greater pressure from the United States in the past,” he said in an interview with the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party.
“Syria will take a step forward every time the Americans take one,” he added.
Toward U.S. engagement with Syria?
Democrats have argued that the United States should engage its top rivals in the Mideast — Iran and Syria — to make headway in easing crises in Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab peace process. Last year, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended talks with the two countries.
Bush rejected the recommendations. But in February, the United States joined a gathering of regional diplomats in Baghdad that included Iran and Syria for talks on Iraq.
Visiting neighboring Lebanon on Monday, Pelosi noted that Republican lawmakers had met Assad on Sunday without comment from the Bush administration.
She said she hoped to rebuild lost confidence between Washington and Damascus.
“We have no illusions but we have great hope,” said Pelosi, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier Tuesday.
Relations between the United States and Syria reached a low point in early 2005 when Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed Syria — which had troops in Lebanon at the time — for the assassination. Damascus denied involvement.
Washington has since succeeded in largely isolating Damascus, with its European and Arab allies shunning Assad. The last high-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in January 2005.
The isolation, however, has begun to crumble in recent months, with visits by U.S. lawmakers and some European officials.