Syria Seeks Diplomatic Engagement with United States

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants Syria to use its influence to rein in Hezbollah. And Syria wants diplomatic engagement with the United States. But Rice isn't planning on talking directly to Damascus. She's counting on friendly regional governments to carry the U.S. message to Syria.

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DON GONYEA, host:

The United Nations is involved in this current crisis in the Middle East, launching a drive for humanitarian aid. U.N. officials are also considering sending a delegation to Damascus to open discussions with the Syrian government. The Bush administration has acknowledged that Syria is crucial to a settlement, but has refused to talk directly to the Syrian government, relying instead on America's Arab allies to pressure Damascus.

As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, when diplomacy replaces the fighting, Syria could move to center stage.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Syrian officials say they want direct talks with the Bush administration based on respect and mutual interests. Syria wants to end its isolation from Washington. And Syria says it has something to offer, strong ties to Hezbollah, the Lebanese group lobbing rockets into Israel. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has a long and personal relationship with Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah. Over the past few days, Syrian officials have been talking publicly about their constructive role.

Mr. FAISAL AL-MEKDAD (Deputy Foreign Minister, Syria): We think we understand Hezbollah and we can help.

AMOS: Faisal al-Mekdad is Syria's deputy foreign minister, a former ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. AL-MEKDAD: We shall not present Hezbollah with impossible ideas. Hezbollah may listen to us, but if we are reasonable enough, not if we dictate to Hezbollah because we know Hezbollah have their own self-respect, dignity, and credibility among the Lebanese people.

AMOS: Mekdad says Syria can open channels of communication among Hezbollah, the U.S., and Israel. Damascus has been quietly cooperative since the fighting began. For example, allowing quick and safe passage for American evacuees from Lebanon after the bombing began. But it's far from clear Washington is ready to turn to a country the Bush administration accuses of sponsoring terrorism.

The U.S. secretary of state insists Syria has to act to reign in Hezbollah before there are talks. Israeli officials charge Syria continues to send fresh weapon supplies to Hezbollah, a charge Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad strongly denies.

Mr. AL-MEKDAD: Syria has stopped all shipments of weapons since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

AMOS: So you…

Mr. AL-MEKDAD: Hezbollah does not need more weapons. I mean, they have a lot of weapons to defend themselves and to defend Lebanon.

AMOS: Weapons that Israel wants to destroy, as well as close the supply line from Iran through Syrian border points.

But can Syria play a central role? Western diplomats agree indirect talks won't bring results. Washington's Arab allies do not have much leverage with Syria. European diplomatic teams are in Damascus for discussions. The Germans are exploring a role, they have negotiated prisoner exchanges between Israeli and Hezbollah in the past.

But the Syrians know it is Washington that calls the shots. This is a nation of merchants, said one diplomat, the opening price for cooperation is high: The Golan Heights, land Israel has occupied since 1967. Syria wants negotiations over the disputed territory back on the table.

In the meantime, Damascus keeps a wary eye on the destruction next door. Deputy Minister Mekdad says first the fighting must stop.

Mr. AL-MEKDAD: We have said that the only way to solving the problem is to have an immediate ceasefire. Without that, it would be crazy to think of any other solution.

AMOS: An immediate ceasefire is not on the table. Another week of unpredictable war could change calculations for the negotiations to come.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

GONYEA: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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