tampabay.com

Against Bush's wishes, Nelson travels to Syria

By ANITA KUMAR and WES ALLISON
Published December 14, 2006


Despite objections from the Bush administration, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson met with Syria's president in Damascus on Wednesday and urged him to tighten his nation's border with Iraq, a major crossing point for arms and aid for the insurgency.

Nelson said President Bashar Assad told him Syria was willing to help control the border, but made no specific promises.

"We in fact have a common interest to stabilize Iraq," Nelson said in a conference call Wednesday from neighboring Jordan. "Assad clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate with the Americans and/or the Iraqi army to be part of a solution. I think it's a crack in the door for discussions to continue."

Nelson is the first senior U.S. official to meet with Assad since the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for reaching out to Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran, to help find a solution to the Iraq war.

Relations between Syria and the United States have been strained for several years, with Washington accusing Syria of aiding anti-American insurgents in Iraq by allowing them to cross from Syria.

Syria denies promoting the insurgency and has said it cannot have absolute control over its 375-mile desert border with Iraq.

Nelson said the State Department discouraged him from going to Syria because "their position is they did not want to have discussions with Assad."

A State Department spokesman said the objections are based on Syria's support of terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, as well as Assad's support of Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that the United States says is undermining the democratically elected government of Lebanon.

When White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked Wednesday about Nelson's trip, he said, "We certainly do not encourage members of Congress to be traveling to Syria."

Nelson said he would report to the State Department and the Senate, where he serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. He also was named this week to the Intelligence Committee.

"I approach all of these discussions with realism, not optimism," he said.

The trip to the Middle East had been planned for some time but Nelson added the stop in Syria after last week's release of the Iraq Study Group report.

Nelson is in the midst of a two-week trip that includes stops in Palestinian areas, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He is scheduled to visit Lebanon today.

Earlier in the week, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also discouraged him from meeting with Assad.

"He preferred me not go," Nelson said. "(But) he knew that I had the interest of Israel at heart."

Nelson and Assad met for one hour in the presidential palace, and had sharp disagreements on other issues.

Nelson said he made it clear the United States won't ease the pressure on Syria to stop supporting terrorism.

He said he also suggested that, in a show of goodwill, Syria help win the release of three captured Israeli soldiers thought to be held by Hezbollah and Hamas.

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., is traveling with Nelson to Iraq but not to Syria. He has been skeptical of engaging with Syria.

"We should never fear to engage in discussion; but neither should we fear to demand that our discussion partners step back from the support of terrorism and insurgency," Coleman said recently.

Nelson said other senators, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, were expected to visit Syria in the coming weeks.