Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - In a move criticized by a pro-Israel U.S. organization, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart on Thursday, possibly signaling a shift in Bush administration policy towards a country designated by the State Department as a sponsor of terror.
Rice met with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on the sidelines of a two-day conference in Egypt intended to discuss the future of Iraq. It's the first meeting between such senior American and Syrian officials in several years.
The U.S. has maintained a policy of economic and political isolation toward Syria since it withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 following reports alleging Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syrian domination of his country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently challenged that policy when she met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Other U.S. lawmakers have traveled to Syria in recent times, but Pelosi was the most senior to do so.
President Bush last December rejected a recommendation by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group - co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton - to engage Syria and Iran as part of the plan to bring calm to Iraq.
Experts said at the time that Syria and Iran would extract a price from the U.S. for their cooperation in Iraq, with some predicting that Syria would demand that the international community back off in its pursuit of the Hariri assassins. An international investigation has implicated senior Syrian officials in the killing.
Analysts also said the U.S. would likely push Israel to return the strategic Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War - another Baker-Hamilton recommendation.
"We think this is a serious mistake," Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said of the U.S.-Syria meeting.
"When the U.S. meets with an official of a state on the U.S. list of terrorist countries, we simply legitimize their terrorist actions and send the message that we are not holding them strongly accountable for their actions," Klein told Cybercast News Service by telephone.
Until the Syrians close down the 10 terrorist groups with offices in Damascus and stop facilitating the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hizballah, the U.S. should be "isolating them and not embracing them," said Klein.
Among the groups hosted by Syria are the Palestinian factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Israelis - and some Americans - in suicide bombings and terrorist attacks since 1994.
In 2003, Syrian President Bashar Assad flatly refused a U.S. request to shut down the headquarters of Palestinian terrorist organizations in Damascus. Assad said they were merely public relations offices.
Klein called the meeting between Rice and Muallem "especially troubling" in light of the fact that the Bush administration sharply condemned the Pelosi-Assad meeting last month. "It makes a mockery of the criticism," he said.
Klein said the meeting made no sense, but he speculated that Washington may be hoping to deflect anti-American criticism in the Muslim world by meeting with a senior Syrian official.
Klein said he worried that the meeting may signal the beginning of a new U.S. push on Israel to surrender the Golan Heights.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which was highly critical of Pelosi's visit to Damascus and launched an ad campaign against it, said Thursday it would not comment on the Rice-Muallem meeting.
The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC also had no immediate comment on the meeting.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said ahead of the meeting that it would focus "exclusively on issues related to Iraq." The U.S. accuses Syria of allowing insurgents to cross its border into Iraq to fight allied troops.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no "direct correlation" between the Rice-Muallem meeting and Israel.
"This has nothing to do with us," she said. "The Americans have a serious problem in Iraq. They have to find a policy that works in Iraq."
Rice also spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, although McCormack played down the encounter: "They said hello, that's about it."
The meeting on Iraq opened Thursday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, with a plea from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for countries to forgive his country's debt to facilitate its reconstruction program.
Iraqi foreign debts are estimated at some $50 billion, according to reports. The Paris Club of lender nations has already written off another $100 billion.
Earlier al-Maliki was quoted as telling Rice that "a rapprochement" needed to take place between the U.S. and regional players, especially Syria and Iran, in order to solve the issue of Iraq.
"All of us here today are bound to the future of Iraq. What happens in Iraq has profound consequences which will affect each and every one of us," Rice said in a speech at the conference.
Pelosi Delivered Wrong Message to Assad, Israel Says (April 5, 2007)
US Ties with Syria Have Rocky History (Dec. 6, 2006)
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