Pelosi’s Delegation Presses Syrian
Leader on Militants
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Published: April 5, 2007
DAMASCUS, Syria, April 4 — House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi and her delegation said they had frank words
with President Bashar al-Assad and other senior
Syrian officials here on Wednesday, pressing the
president over Syria’s support for militant groups
and insisting that his government block militants
seeking to cross into Iraq and join insurgents
Delegation members said that they sought to persuade
Mr. Assad to distance himself from Iran, and its
president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has become
Syria’s ally in the growing confrontation with the
so-called quartet of moderate Arab states, Saudi
Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, said he asked Mr. Assad how
someone “of his intelligence and knowledge of the
world could have common cause with President
Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has denied the Holocaust
and calls for the elimination of Israel.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi
announced that she had conveyed a message to Mr.
Assad from Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert,
that he was ready to negotiate for peace.
Shortly afterward, however, Mr. Olmert’s office
issued a clarification of his message, insisting
that, “although Israel is interested in peace with
Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis
of evil and a force that encourages terror in the
entire Middle East.”
To begin serious peace negotiations, the Israeli
statement said, Syria must end its support of
terrorism and its sponsorship of the Hamas and
Islamic Jihad organizations; refrain from providing
weapons to Hezbollah and bringing about the
destabilizing of Lebanon; stop its support of
terrorism in Iraq; and relinquish the strategic ties
it is building with the government in Iran.
Members of the delegation said that among the issues
they took up in Damascus was the case of the three
Israeli soldiers being held by the Lebanese militant
group Hezbollah — which is supported by Iran — and
the Palestinian group Hamas.
In addition to Mr. Lantos, the delegation includes
Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California,
Louise M. Slaughter of New York, Nick J. Rahall II
of West Virginia and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, all
Democrats, as well as David L. Hobson, Republican of
The lawmakers said they also sought to emphasize
Syria’s importance in bringing peace to Lebanon,
Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
“We came in friendship, hope, and determined that
the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Ms. Pelosi
told reporters after her meetings.
Her visit has been strongly criticized by the Bush
administration and dismissed by some in the Middle
East as a domestic political play.
At the White House on Tuesday, President Bush told
reporters that he saw little point in talking to
Syria now. “Sending delegations hasn’t worked,” he
said. “It’s just simply been counterproductive.”
Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National
Security Council, on Wednesday seized upon Ms.
Pelosi’s comment on the “road to peace,” to say, in
a briefing on Air Force One: “Unfortunately, that
road is lined with the victims of Hamas and
Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross
from Syria into Iraq. It’s lined with the victims in
Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy
there. It’s lined with human rights activists trying
for freedom and democracy in Syria.”
Ms. Pelosi’s trip, initially sparked by an
invitation from Mr. Assad himself and encouraged by
the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, she said, is part
of a continuing attempt to sway Bush administration
policy on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
In November, the study group recommended that
Washington open ties with Iran and Syria to help
stabilize the conflict in Iraq and cool other
crises. This month, a group of Republican lawmakers
also visited Damascus, calling on Mr. Bush to seek a
dialogue with the Syrians.
The Bush administration has resisted the idea of
opening such a dialogue, citing its view that the
country is a state sponsor of terrorism. It accuses
the Syrian government of providing militants with
safe passage into Iraq and of interfering in
Lebanon’s politics after its army was forced to
leave there in 2005. Syria denies the accusations.
Syrian officials have seized on the trip to show
that their country’s isolation is waning.
European officials and diplomats have ignored United
States objections to meeting with Mr. Assad in
recent months, citing many of the reasons Ms. Pelosi
“Everyone knows there are different points of view
between Syria and the United States,” said Walid al-Muallem,
Syria’s foreign minister. “We are happy that Mrs.
Pelosi and her delegation had the courage and
determination to bridge these differences.”
Syria’s government-controlled newspapers praised the
visit as a milestone. “Pelosi is in Damascus not
because she loves this dear city, but because she is
aware that it is impossible to ignore Syria’s role,”
an editorial in the daily Al Thawrah said. “Now what
remains to be done is for the others who are also
aware of that to awaken from their sleep.”
Marwan al-Kabalan, a professor of political science
and media at Damascus University, said Ms. Pelosi’s
arrival here may take the pressure off diplomats and
other Western officials seeking to engage Syria.
“This will help give the impression that Syria is no
longer isolated in the world,” he said. “So now, you
can’t ask the Europeans or others not to visit the
Syrians like you used to before.”
Yet many Syrians were left wondering what really
changed after Ms. Pelosi’s plane took off from
Damascus Wednesday afternoon. Some analysts said
they feared that instead of a grand opening with the
United States, Syria had become a pawn in an
domestic dispute between the Democrats and the
Ms. Pelosi, who left for Saudi Arabia, took pains at
the news conference to insist that she was not
contradicting the Bush administration’s actual
policies in the Middle East.
“There is no division on policy between us and
President Bush, be it on Israel, Palestine or
Syria,” she told reporters before leaving Damascus
International Airport. “As a mother I will exhaust
every remedy for peace.”
Some local commentators used that comment as a
springboard for criticism of Ms. Pelosi.
“There was a feeling that this visit had more to do
with domestic politics than us,” said one, Jihad
Yaziji, editor in chief of “The Syria Report,” an
online magazine, who attended a dinner in honor of
Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday night. “If she isn’t going to
be very different from Bush, then why did she come?”
Hugh Naylor contributed reporting.