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U.S.-Syrian Officials Meet at Iraq Summit

May 3, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Karen, what did Secretary Rice talk about with her Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid Moualem?

KAREN DEYOUNG, The Washington Post: She said — and he agreed — that they talk exclusively about Iraq. Rice emphasized that the United States would like to see a stop to the so-called foreign fighters flowing from Syria over the border into Iraq. And Minister Moualem from Syria said only that they — in public statements, said only that they had discussed their joint desire for increased security in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today in Baghdad, you probably heard a top U.S. military spokesman said that Syria had, in fact, tightened its borders and reduced the number of insurgents coming into Iraq. Was that seen as a coincidence or coordinated with this meeting in Egypt today?

KAREN DEYOUNG: I don’t think it was coordinated. I think it was a coincidence. The U.S. military makes these assessments on a monthly basis. Rice acknowledged after the meeting that they had, indeed, seen these reports, but that they want to wait and see whether it’s actually a trend and it’s something that continues, because that’s a level that goes up and down over various months.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you said that they focused largely on or maybe exclusively on Iraq. Were there any signs out there that this was the beginning of some broader restart of relations between the U.S. and Syria? Or is it very much focused on Iraq and the subject of this conference, Iraq?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, I think they — for public consumption, they were saying it’s very much — it just focused on Iraq and was made possible in the context of this conference. But I think that U.S. officials do see it as the beginning of a resumption of dialogue, conditional, of course, on progress that they hope to see on the Syrian side.

Iraq adamant about dialogue

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happened to cause that? Because, of course, the Bush administration has been very adamant about not talking to the Syrians since relations were strained in early 2005, I think it goes back to. So why now? What happened?

KAREN DEYOUNG: Well, I think that what happened is, first of all, the Iraqi government has been quite adamant in asking the United States to please initiate a dialogue with its neighbors. They feel like they're kind of in the middle of a conflict between the United States and these other governments, and that inhibits increased cooperation on Iraq.

But, also, I think that the administration is well-aware of the criticism it's gotten at home, particularly following the Iraq Study Group report, which urged it to initiate or to resume some kind of talks with Syria and Iran, saying that, regardless of what they're responsible for, the situation is not going to improve if we just refuse to talk to them and make clear to them directly what our concerns are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the administration was very critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she met with Syrian President Assad last month. Was Secretary Rice asked about that? Was she distinguishing these talks?

KAREN DEYOUNG: She was asked about that. And she said "Well" -- I'll read a quote from her -- she said, "Well, I think there's a difference in going to Damascus and having broad-scale discussions about a whole range of issues with Syria," and that was the issue at the time.

I think having the secretary of state take an opportunity to speak to the foreign minister of Syria about a concrete problem involving Iraq at an Iraq neighbor's conference makes more sense.

Concerns from the Sunni minority

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Iran's foreign minister is also at that conference. Any signs today that Secretary Rice might meet with him?

KAREN DEYOUNG: No. And U.S. officials made it clear that that's a meeting that is not going to take place at this conference. They did greet each other a lunch today and exchanged some pleasantries.

There was some thought that they were going to repeat the process, again, just exchanging pleasantries at a dinner tonight that was hosted by the Egyptian foreign minister. But after the dinner was over -- it is now over -- Rice's spokesman put out a statement saying that she had arrived at the dinner before guests were seated, that after her arrival, but prior to the dinner, they learned that the Iranian foreign minister had already come and gone, and they didn't see each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the conference itself was intended to look for financial and political backing for Iraq, but some of the early reporting that I've seen -- including your own -- suggests that it's bringing out more divisions than bringing countries together. What are you seeing there?

KAREN DEYOUNG: I don't think that's entirely true. I think that, certainly, very large concerns remain on the part, certainly, of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, that they see the Iraqi government as too close to Iran. They see the Sunni minority in Iraq being discriminated against. They see that the promised political reconciliation among groups and the more equitable division of oil revenue has been very slow getting decided within the government.

But I think that, at least as far as the United States was concerned, there was some encouragement that they'd shown up at this meeting, that they did, by and large, pledge aid to Iraq, and agreed to forgive a large portion of Iraqi debt owed to them. And they said that they appreciate Iraq's new commitment to speed up these reforms, and they will wait and see what happens.

Bringing together 60 governments

JEFFREY BROWN: So that sounds like -- I was going to ask you finally -- what Secretary Rice wants to come away with from this, and that's it, those kinds of pledges?

KAREN DEYOUNG: I think those kinds of pledges, and I think, in a much broader sense, you know, the United States, having gone into Iraq without the support of a lot of its friends at the time, as the situation has developed there, and as Iraq has become more and more of a problem, I think they would like to -- I don't want to say share the wealth, but they would like it to be an international problem and not just a U.S. problem.

And so what this conference does is it brings everybody together, almost 60 governments, almost 30 foreign ministers in a room, to all say, "Not only are we willing to help Iraq, but we, also, are supporting the U.S. desire for Iraq to hurry up and implement these reforms."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, thanks very much.

KAREN DEYOUNG: You're very welcome.