Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Syria hails Pelosi trip to Damascus

Syria hails Pelosi trip to Damascus
By Ferry Biedermann in Damascus
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 3 2007 23:00 | Last updated: April 3 2007 23:00

Syria on Tuesday hailed what it called the “courageous position” taken by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, after President George W. Bush criticised the Democrat’s trip to Damascus.

Ms Pelosi arrived on Tuesday for what is the highest level visit by a US official in more than two years. She is to meet President Bashar al-Assad today as she seeks to “build some confidence” between the two countries.

Mr Bush said the trip could send “mixed signals” that would undermine efforts to isolate Mr Assad’s regime, which the US accuses of supporting militants in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, adding previous such visits had been “counterproductive”.

Mr Bush, locked in a political battle with the Democratic-led Congress over war-funding legislation, said Ms Pelosi’s meeting would “lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community.”

But in an interview with the Financial Times in Damascus, Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, said he hoped the visit would signal the start of a dialogue between Syria and “the people of the United States”. He called the Bush government a “blind administration” that was unwilling even to engage in dialogue.

The US and Europe cut off high-level contacts with Syria after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon in February 2005. The UN is looking at the alleged Syrian role in the killing but Damascus denies any involvement.

At the end of last year the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group in the US recommended engaging both Syria and Iran in order to stabilise Iraq. And Syria saw the victory of Ms Pelosi’s Democrats over President Bush’s Republicans in last year’s mid-term elections as a blow to the administration’s Middle East policies. Since then numerous US politicians – Democrats and Republicans – have visited Damascus.

Mr Mekdad said Syria was heartened by what it saw as the US people’s rejection of the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East.

“The positions which have been taken by Democrats and even by a lot of Republicans in the United States Congress is very important and it’s effective. We have seen this administration being cornered.” Syria was under no illusion that the Democrats had very different positions on the Middle East than the current US government, he added.

But while under past Democratic administrations the US and the Syrians might not always have seen eye to eye, “the aggressive policies of this administration, the Republican administration under President Bush, have become unprecedented. They have used military force to solve situations in the region. They have worked very hard to pressure Syria, to isolate Syria and to implement whatever Israel decides”, said Mr Mekdad.

He sharply criticised European countries for giving in to US pressure to isolate Syria, which did not need Europe. “The world is not Europe and we don’t have to be focusing on Europe. We have a lot of alternatives. This doesn’t mean we are against rapprochement.”

Syria was willing to help stabilise the region. He was aware US interests in the region had to be considered because with the US military presence in Iraq, the countries were “neighbours”.

But the US should not just expect groups such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas to fade away. “We think that if we reach a comprehensive and just peace [with Israel] there will be no more justification for the existence of armed groups in the region. This is the way. Let’s achieve peace, but nobody can give up [their positions] for nothing.”


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