Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Time Is Ripe for the US to Engage Syria on Mideast Issues

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Time Is Ripe for the US to Engage Syria on Mideast Issues

Article excerpt

The evenings are still chilly as shoppers browse Damascus's new up-market shops for the latest European fashions. But in the side streets, vendors are selling crunchy green almonds, and as the seasons turn you can sense a new self- confidence in a regime here that just a year ago was considered by many Middle East observers to be close to collapse.

This self-confidence was evident in the 70-minute interview I conducted with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem on Feb. 28. Mr. Mouallem welcomed the fact that the Bush administration has said it will participate in the meeting planned for March 10 in Baghdad, where Washington will have its first direct, high-level contacts for several years with representatives of Syria and Iran. (Iraq, its other neighbors, and the other permanent members of the Security Council will also all be there.)

Until recently, the Bush administration worked hard to isolate both Iran and Syria. In December, President Bush curtly ignored the Iraq Study Group's advice that he engage these two politically significant neighbors of Iraq in an energetic new diplomacy on both Iraq and Arab-Israeli peace. Now, he has shifted toward following one part of that recommendation.

Mouallem, a very experienced professional diplomat, portrayed Syria as eager to be forthcoming regarding Iraq. He described Washington's decision to take part in the March 10 meeting as, "a partial step in the correct direction." But he said Syria still seeks the US's help in launching "a comprehensive dialogue on regional issues, starting with the Arab-Israeli issue, which is the core issue in the region."

Last November, he made an official visit to Baghdad, and in January, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a state visit to Syria. (Mr. Talabani is one of the many members of the present Iraqi government who found refuge in Damascus during Saddam Hussein's years in power.)

Mouallem said he judges that the first priority in Iraq should be for the Iraqi and US governments to work out and announce a clear timetable for a total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He declined my invitation to specify or estimate the length of this timetable, saying only that it should be linked to the rebuilding of Iraq's own security forces "on a truly national basis."

He added, "No one is thinking about imposing defeat on the US forces. On the contrary, we are trying to find an honorable withdrawal for them."

Mouallem said Syria fears the prolongation of Iraq's current instability for two main reasons. First, instability has sent "more than a million" Iraqis fleeing into Syria, placing a heavy burden on the country's health and education systems. (Many Syrians say the displaced Iraqis have sent rents and property prices skyrocketing, and some resentment has started to build. …

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