DAMASCUS, Syria — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held talks with Syria’s leader today despite White House objections, saying she pressed President Bashar Assad over his country’s support for militant groups and passed him a peace message from Israel.
The meeting was an attempt to push the Bush administration to open a direct dialogue with Syria, a step that the White House has rejected. Congressional Democrats insist the U.S. attempts to isolate Syria have failed to force the Assad government to change its policies.
Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Mrs. Pelosi’s delegation, said the meeting “reinforced very strongly” the potential benefits of talking to Syria. “This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria, and we hope to build on this visit,” he told reporters.
Yesterday, President Bush denounced Mrs. Pelosi’s visit to Syria, saying it sends mixed signals to Mr. Assad’s government. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive,” Mr. Bush said.
Washington says Syria is fueling Iraq’s violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory. It also accuses it of backing terrorism because of its support for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and of destabilizing the Lebanese government.
“We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters after her talks with Mr. Assad.
Mrs. Pelosi said she and her delegation “expressed our concern about Syria’s connections to Hezbollah and Hamas” and discussed the issue of militant fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.
“These are important issues not only in the fight against terrorism, but important priorities for us for peace in the Middle East,” she said.
She said she brought a message to Mr. Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria. Mr. Assad gave assurances that “he’s ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel,” Mrs. Pelosi said. She later left Syria and arrived in Saudi Arabia, meeting with King Abdullah, a top U.S. ally.
During a visit to Israel on Sunday, Mr. Olmert told Mrs. Pelosi that Israel was seeking peace, “but that this would only be possible if Syria abandoned terror and stopped providing assistance to terror groups,” an Israeli government official said.
Mr. Assad has repeatedly said in the past year that Damascus is willing to negotiate with Israel, insisting that the talks must lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
In the talks with Mr. Assad, the delegation raised the issue of Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas and conveyed “the importance of Syria’s role with Hamas in promoting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Syria hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, as well as other Palestinian radical groups, and is a major patron of Hezbollah. While the United States regards Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, Syria insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement working for Palestinian freedom and that Hezbollah is a regular Lebanese political party.