US delegation Holding Secret Talks with Syria
Washington D.C. , Asharq Al-Awsat- A US source has revealed to "Asharq al-Awsat" that a group made up of members of the republican party and retired military officers are seeking Syria's help in salvaging US policy in Iraq.
The source said an unofficial US delegation has just returned from Damascus where it held talks with a number of Syrian decision makers during which it was able to obtain a Syrian offer of effective cooperation to achieve stability in Iraq in exchange for ensuring the Arabism of Iraq and not threatening stability inside Syria itself. The source added, added that the Syrian offer includes a reference to the willingness of Damascus to name a Syrian ambassador in Baghdad immediately and open the embassy as a show of good intentions. According to the US source, the Syrian offer was made in response to a proposal from the moderate wing in the Republican Party to make Syria a strategic ally in the region if it implements the stated US demands and helps the ongoing political process in Iraq to continue.
The source went on to say that, the Syrian response "was generous and detailed" and is difficult for the US administration to reject because it is "the easiest option for saving its face in Iraq." It also includes a reference to Syria's ability to cooperate in the field to achieve stability in Iraq side by side with the American troops if it receives a request for this from Washington. It pointed out that the officials who are close to the Syrian presidency who took part in the talks last week underlined the need for dealing with Syrian with respect and for protecting Iraq's Arab identity.
According to the source's assertion, the US delegation returned from Damascus full of optimism and is at present preparing a report to the decision makers in Washington that includes a recommendation to try to gain Syria as a strategic ally in the region, if it fulfills its promises, and to help develop Syria economically and democratically so that the US plan in the region can become a dual one that includes Syria and Iraq at the same time without the need for shedding more blood or sacrificing the lives of American soldiers.
The delegation met on its return from Damascus with an executive official in President George Bush's administration who is a specialist in Syrian affairs. A dispute flared up between her and the civilian and military representatives of the moderate wing. The latter conveyed the Syrian view about the importance of dialogue and unambiguous agreements while the administration representative reiterated the stated US demands and laid down the condition that the Syrian side should start by taking practical steps on the ground before starting any direct dialogue and not just voice obligations. One of the participants, pointed out that the administration expressed its satisfaction with the Syrian offer to send an ambassador to Baghdad and raised at the same time the importance of sending a Syrian ambassador to Beirut, opening a Syrian embassy in Lebanon in addition to the demarcation of the border between Lebanon and Syria, recognition of Lebanon's full independence, help in persuading Lebanese President Emile Lahhud to step down, and non-interference in the Lebanese people's selection of a new president. It also called on the Syrian government to regulate the arrival in Damascus of Arab youths of certain age and from certain countries, impose on them entry visas or record their addresses in Syria, and tighten the watch on them to ensure they do not go to Iraq.
The participant refused to divulge details of the Syrian offer in connection with the other issues but said it dealt with the conditions of the Palestinian factions in Syria and the situations in Lebanon in addition to total readiness to release freedoms inside the country, accept pluralism, and rebuild the country in a democratic way.
Citing an American participant in the talks, the source said the Syrians did not appear to be worried by the results of the anticipated report of German Judge Mehlis on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and were ready to punish any likely Syrian involved in the crime before the Syrian judiciary. It added that one of the Syrian negotiators challenged any party whatsoever to prove there is any Syrian intelligence element inside Lebanon and another official said Syria took a strategic choice after the recent Baathh Party conference to get closer to the West, not antagonize the superpowers, and start the internal building process.
"Asharq al-Awsat's" source said that a US-Syrian rapprochement, if it happens, would be in the interest of the two countries and peoples, spare the US administration the internal pressures because of the crisis in Iraq, and spare the Syrian Government the increasing external pressure on it.
A US State Department official denied that the department knew of any talks with the Syrian Government but pointed out that the US Embassy in Damascus is open and the American diplomats are doing their job and the Syrian authorities can inform them of any real change in its policies. He stressed that no US official has talked at all about regime change in Syria and all that Washington is hoping for is a "change in the Syrian behavior toward specific issues that the Syrians know well."