STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, met yesterday with a Democratic senator from the United States. He's Senator Bill Nelson from Florida. He met with President Assad despite the State Department's efforts to discourage him from holding that meeting. And the meeting comes just after the Iraq Study Group recommended closer ties between the United States and Syria. Senator Nelson is now in Beirut, Lebanon. Senator, welcome to the program.
Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: How were you received by they Syrian government?
Sen. NELSON: With some degree of distance and aloofness, which is clearly the way I approached the meeting as well. I wanted to be deadly serious about these issues of Lebanon, and Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria's support, undermining the interest of the United States. But we at least had some common interest expressed. I left the meeting with President Assad saying that he wanted to cooperate with the Americans and/or the Iraqi army on control of the Iraqi-Syria border.
INSKEEP: Senator, we mentioned that your visit comes after this report suggesting that the United States cooperate more closely with Syria. The administration has dismissed that proposal and also said they wished you haven't taken you trip. Are you going around the administration here?
Sen. NELSON: Well, the Baker-Hamilton report did not say cooperate with Syria. The Baker-Hamilton report follows Jim Baker's admonition that you ought to talk to your enemies to see if there is any common ground that would be in the interest of America. If President Assad is in fact truthful about wanting to control the border, it helps him because he's got a big refugee problem flowing into Syria.
It helps him also because he wants a pipeline out of Iraq through Syria to the Mediterranean. But it certainly helps us in stopping the jihadists and all the other foreign fighters going in to Iraq and undermining our efforts there.
INSKEEP: What do you think Syria wants in return?
Sen. NELSON: It's not clear. I think that the United States clearly will not deal on anything having to do with Lebanon. The U.S. and I as a senator vigorously support the Siniora government in Lebanon, which is a fledging democracy that the Syrians are trying to undermine. We're not going to give on anything like that.
INSKEEP: There was also discussion in this Baker-Hamilton report of considering a return of the Golan Heights from Israel to Syria. Would you support that? I'm sure the Syrians would.
Sen. NELSON: Well, the short answer to your question is no. The longer answer is that you have to see in the context of overall Middle East peace, which is such a convoluted process. If it is ever to be achieved, you have to look at all options. But right now the short answer is no.
INSKEEP: Bill Nelson is a Democratic senator from Florida. He's just returned from a visit to Syria. He's now in Beirut. Senator, thanks very much.
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