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    Middle East
     Apr 6, 2007
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Was it really Pelosi in Damascus?
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - "Our meeting with the president [Bashar al-Assad] enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks" with Syria. These were the words of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, during her groundbreaking two-day visit to Damascus.

Strange, but if Olmert wanted to send a message to the Syrians, why would he choose Pelosi as the messenger, given the variety of other choices he has at the Bush White House and the US

Department of State? Isn't Olmert a strong ally of President George W Bush? And isn't Bush very much opposed to Pelosi's visit to Syria?

That's what the US media have been saying this week. Don't Bush and Olmert disagree with Pelosi on most of her views with regard to Syria, Iraq and Palestine? Pelosi, after all, wants to engage the Syrians. Bush and Olmert do not. Pelosi wants the US Army out of Iraq. The two men do not. There are two possible answers to this question.

One would be that Olmert decided to break with the Bush administration after the Democratic election victory last year and rely on the president's opponents in Congress for his Middle East diplomacy. That certainly is unlikely. Or maybe Pelosi was actually in Damascus at the request of Bush himself.

All the talk about Bush being opposed to her visit, therefore, would be no more than media jargon, intended for local consumption in the United States. This would mean that Pelosi was in Damascus because Bush wanted her to be in Damascus. Opposing the visit would save him a lot of face, given all his rising rhetoric in recent years on Syria.

Indeed, Bush has raised the anti-Syrian tone to such an extent that it has became too difficult for him to retreat without embarrassing himself. Bush realized he was wrong - the Syrians were right - and he needed a back channel to Damascus to help bring about stability to Lebanon and Palestine - and, more important, Iraq.

True, Pelosi was carrying a message from the Israelis, but the real substance of her visit was a message from Washington, DC. The real message was: we need the Syrians.

Regardless of who were the architects of Pelosi's visit, what mattered to the Syrians was that she was in Damascus. Whether she came with a peace offer from Israel or a truce from Washington, they welcomed her as a guest of honor, with red carpets in the Syrian capital.

She commented, "We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president [Assad] that he was ready to resume the peace process. He was ready to engage in negotiations [for] peace with Israel."

Another question arises from Israel's peace offer: given the collective Arab endorsement of the Saudi plan at the latest Arab summit in Riyadh (supported by Syria), which calls for peace between Israel and 22 Arab states, why did Olmert convey this message only to Damascus? Hadn't Bush said in December 2004 that Syria is a "very weak country" that "just has to wait" until all other pending issues are solved in the Middle East before restarting its talks with Israel?

And is Olmert in a position to talk peace, after his blundering failure in the war in Lebanon last year where none of his declared objectives were met? The two Israeli soldiers taken by Hezbollah are still in Lebanon, after all, and Hezbollah is still armed and strong. Can a man who lost a war have enough credibility to talk peace? One needs to have won a war to talk peace. That was the case with former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, who had enough legitimacy to talk peace with the Palestinians because of his war history. It was also the case with former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. Not Olmert. Certainly not after the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Pelosi added that her meeting with the Syrian president was "very productive" and added, "We called to the attention of the president our concern about fighters crossing the Iraq-Syria border to the determent of the Iraqi people and our soldiers."

But something is wrong here. Hadn't Colonel William Crowe, the US officer who controls the Iraqi side of its border with Syria, spoken of the number of fighters coming in from Syria in January, saying, "There is no large influx of foreign fighters that come across the border"?

The final questions arise from Pelosi's trip to Beirut, before going to Syria. Speaking with authority, she told the Lebanese that the US "will not bargain over Lebanon" and that her visit to Syria "ought not to be considered as meaning a change in US policy concerning Lebanon". If Pelosi was not representing the White House, how could she then give remarks on official US policy in the Middle East?

Didn't the Bush administration say that she did not represent the official government in her Middle East tour? Or was she mandated to speak officially on Lebanon, and unofficially on Syria? She then said from Beirut, after meeting with parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, "The road to solving Lebanon's problems passes through Damascus." She added that her visit did not fall within the framework of "illusions" but "great hope".

Amusingly, Lebanon's anti-Syrian Future TV said that Pelosi's trip was intended to scold the Syrians and send them strong-worded messages from Washington. She didn't seem to be scolding the

Continued 1 2 

Iran takes the wind out of US sails (Apr 6, '07)

A US detour via Syria to Iran (Mar 15, '07)


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