Syria left a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference without a specific promise from Israel to restart stalled talks but with signs the Bush administration is softening its diplomatic hard line against an Arab state that has played a role in past peace efforts.
Syrian delegates received warm handshakes and words of thanks from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose administration has largely shunned Syria since early 2005.
At the close of Tuesday’s speeches and meetings focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice walked over to the Syrian delegates, said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.
“She shook hands with us and thanked us for participating,” Moustapha told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday. “She also asked us to pass our greetings to Foreign Minister Waleed al-Moallem.”
Syria sent a deputy foreign minister instead of al-Moallem, while other invited nations sent their top diplomats. Syria’s move was widely viewed as a subtle snub to the U.S. hosts, but U.S. officials said they took no offense.
Rice’s handshake may have been a small gesture. But coming on top of the U.S. invitation to Syria to attend the one-day session, and Syria’s willingness to attend, it could indicate a slight thaw in the diplomatic chill between Washington and Damascus.
After repeatedly saying there was no point in talking to Syria, Rice has met twice this year with al-Moallem. She has described the meetings as businesslike and focused largely on U.S. demands that Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders to fight in Iraq, where they threaten U.S. forces.
Afterward, the U.S. made a point of saying that Rice raised U.S. complaints about alleged Syrian meddling in Lebanon and Syria made a point of saying it asked Rice to return an American ambassador to Damascus.
Chilly relations after 2005
U.S.-Syrian relations frosted over following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an attack which many blamed on Damascus. The U.S. yanked its ambassador and clamped a diplomatic boycott on Syria, accusing it of destabilizing Lebanon, sending insurgents to Iraq and supporting the militant anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
“We have called upon the Syrian government to change their behavior in a variety of different ways. I don’t think at this point I can offer you a definitive assessment,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.
“But the fact that they did come to the conference, the fact that they did participate in such a way that added to the conversation, indicates to me that they understand that there is another pathway that they can choose to take, a more constructive pathway.”
A thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations could help break a political impasse in Lebanon over election of a new president — and a resolution appeared closer Thursday.
Lebanon’s top Christian opposition leader, Michel Aoun, joined an emerging consensus to name Lebanon’s army chief as a compromise president.
Better U.S.-Syrian ties might also dilute Iran’s influence in the region. Iran, which does not have a border with Lebanon, Hamas or Syria, will find it hard to reach out to the groups it supports there without Syria’s role as a go-between.
Moustapha said nothing concrete emerged at the conference toward reviving talks with Israel, which shares a border with Syria. The two nations do not have diplomatic relations but have shown interest in reaching a land and peace deal. The main point of contention is the Golan Heights, strategic territory that Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war.
Olmert open to talks
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters that no talks are imminent, but he is not opposed to the concept. There is strong backing for diplomacy with Syria elsewhere in Olmert’s complex coalition government, particularly from defense chief and potential Olmert rival Ehud Barak.
Israeli officials said this month that Olmert has sent messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad that he is interested in reopening peace talks and suggested Israel would return some territory.
The United States, Israel’s strongest ally, has taken a hands-off approach to the Syria question in public. In private, officials have been cool to the idea, out of fear that Syria would use any diplomatic overture as leverage in other disputes.
“That is going to be up to the Syrians and the Israelis to see ... if they see an opening that they believe that they can exploit,” McCormack said.
Israeli-Syrian peace talks broke down in 2000 with an Israeli offer on the table to return part of the Golan Heights. Syria insisted on further territory.
Tensions between Israel and Syria have been high following an Israeli airstrike two months ago against a suspected nuclear site in northern Syria. Syria has denied developing a reactor.
Focus on Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Moustapha said the Annapolis conference gave Syria a chance to remind the world about the Golan. That was the implicit price of the invitation for the United States, which wanted to keep the focus of the session on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
“At least we were very realistic, and we didn’t waste such an opportunity to remind the world of such an issue,” Moustapha said.
A follow-up conference tentatively scheduled for Moscow sometime next spring may address the Israeli-Syrian conflict directly. The idea of a follow-up session “received support” at Annapolis, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia, whose close ties with Syria go back to the Soviet era, has long called for a broad conference including Israel’s neighboring Arab states.
McCormack called a follow-up Russian conference “an interesting concept,” but not one that all parties have yet agreed on.