- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

Visa for Syria

American readers generally understand that there is a strict separation between the news and opinion pages of this and other U.S. newspapers. Our editorial pages may rage in support of or against one policy or another, but that doesn’t mean our reporters share that view or are expected to reflect it in their stories.

That difference is not so clearly understood in some foreign countries. We stress the point at every opportunity in our meetings with foreign visitors, but there are still a handful of countries that are reluctant to allow our reporters in because of things that have been said about them in our editorial and commentary pages.

We have recently been assured, very graciously, that the next time we apply for a reporter’s visa to visit China it will be granted. That is a big step forward. In the past, our reporters could get into China only when traveling with a senior U.S. official or coming to attend a major international conference.

Another country is Syria. I don’t know just what our editorial writers have said about that country over the years, but I’m sure a lot of it wasn’t flattering. And obviously, they noticed.

It was about seven years ago that our United Nations reporter Betsy Pisik first tried to visit Syria as part of a wider trip to the Middle East. She applied for a visa in plenty of time, but received no reply and had to leave Syria off her itinerary.

The second time she tried, we invoked the good offices of various diplomats in Washington with excellent connections at the embassy here or in Damascus. I made several calls to the then ambassador.

In the best tradition of the Middle East, we were never told no. It was always, “We will have to wait and see,” or “We are working on it.” But the visa was never issued and we gave up on the plan.

Accompanying Mr. Ban

A few weeks ago, a new opportunity presented itself when Miss Pisik was invited to join a small group of reporters on a trip to Qatar and Syria with the new U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

There were several good reasons to jump at the opportunity. It offered a chance to get some stories that would not be available to our competitors. It was a chance to establish a good working relationship with the new secretary-general and some of his staff. And it was a chance to get into Syria.

Mr. Ban planned to stay in Damascus for only a day or so, and in the end cut that back to just six or seven hours. But Miss Pisik, whose visa was arranged by the U.N. staff and issued without any problems, made clear to Syrian officials that she planned to stay for several days on her own.

She put in requests for interviews with the president, the foreign minister, whoever else she could get. Officials told her they would try but could make no promises. Once in Damascus, Miss Pisik continued to ask for access to government officials and received similar replies.

In the meanwhile, she began work on a story about the more than 1 million Iraqi refugees who have descended on Syria, a story yet to be published. And, bemused to find ordinary Iraqis approaching her on the street and in coffee shops to say how much they appreciated a recent visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she wrote a light-hearted story about that.

A break finally came on Thursday, the same day that Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. She received a call on her cell phone at about 10:30 a.m. asking her to be at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in two hours.

There, she was ushered in to see the deputy foreign minister, who gave her a lengthy interview including defiant and newsworthy remarks about a proposed tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

It was a long time coming but persistence paid off in the end. Perhaps the next visa will not take so long.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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