|Nelson meets with Syrian leader, earns criticism from Kyl|
|Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), emerged from a Wednesday meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying that opportunities exist to continue a dialogue about Syria’s role in helping steady the chaos in Iraq.
Nelson is the Democrats’ newest member of the Intelligence Committee and his a sharp schism between the Democrats’ newest Intelligence committee member and President Bush.
Nelson was the first U.S. official to visit Syria since the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended involving Syria and Iran, two nations considered state sponsors of terrorism by the White House, in the stabilization of Iraq. While Nelson responded cautiously to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his judgment that there is “a crack in the door” for future talks sparked immediate criticism from the Bush administration and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
During Nelson’s hour-long meeting with Assad in Damascus, the recently re-elected Democrat and the Syrian leader found common ground on the need to stem the downward spiral of political unrest and violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has charged Syria with failing to fully secure its border with Iraq, allowing insurgents to cross over.
“Assad clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate with the Americans and-or the Iraqi army to be part of a solution,” Nelson told reporters in a Wednesday conference call from the Middle East. “I think there is a crack in the door for discussions to continue. I approach this with realism, not optimism.”
But the president approached Nelson’s trip with stern disapproval of any diplomatic relations with Syria, which maintained a military presence in Lebanon for 15 years after open hostilities between the countries ceased.
“Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force,” President Bush said in a Wednesday statement. He called for the release of Syrian political prisoners and an end to Syria’s interference in Lebanese politics, which came to a head with the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.
Nelson also challenged Assad on Syria’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, two armed terrorist groups operating largely in Lebanon and the Israel-Palestine area, respectively. “The two differed sharply,” according to a statement from Nelson’s office.
Kyl, the incoming Senate GOP conference chairman, appeared on Fox News Wednesday afternoon to denounce any effort to broaden U.S.-Syria dialogue.
“The Iraq Study Group is a nice group of people … that doesn’t mean it is now the policy of the U.S. government,” Kyl said.
Congressional reaction to the Iraq Study Group’s call for a détente has crossed party lines, with some Republicans and Democrats concurring but many favoring continued isolation of Syria.
Nelson’s met with Bashar al-Assad despite objections by the State Department, which also opposes efforts by Senate Democratic colleague Chris Dodd (Conn.), who also will visit Syria in coming days. Dodd said, through a spokeswoman, that he canceled plans for an April stop in Syria at the urging of the administration but supports an attempt to change the U.S.’ isolation-only approach.
“I don’t believe in having conversations with people for the sake of having conversations; idle chatter is not the point of all of this,” said Dodd, the second-ranked Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “However, when you’ve got governments like Syria which have influence on the course of events, it’s important to engage with them …”
He added: “I’m not going to suggest that one [senator] going into Syria is going to change everything. But I do think it’s important that they do hear directly from members of Congress about concerns we may have, and questions we may wish to raise.”
Nelson, who will head to Lebanon tomorrow, said Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are also expected to soon visit Syria.
Kyl and James Woolsey, the former central intelligence director with whom he co-chairs the hawkish advisory council at the Center for Security Policy, wrote to Bush on Monday affirming their opposition to any U.S.-Syria thaw.
“We encourage you to follow your better instincts,” Kyl and Woosley told Bush, calling Syria a “de facto colony” of Iran that “has gone to great lengths to destabilize the Middle East.”