In strategy shift, U.S. meets with Syria

The Bush administration has accused Syria of letting terrorists cross its border into Iraq.

Published May 4, 2007

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - In a diplomatic turning point for the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syria's foreign minister and expressed U.S. concerns about the country's porous border with Iraq.

"I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me, " Rice said after the first Cabinet-level talks in years between the countries.

Even so, Rice said she was not planning a meeting with the foreign minister of Iran. The administration has resisted talks with Syria and Iran despite the recommendations of allies and the Iraq Study Group.

"It's a start, " Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after the 30-minute session.

The carefully orchestrated meeting overshadowed the modest initial accomplishments from a 50-nation gathering devoted to improving Iraq's security and economy. Iraq's embattled prime minister was among those leaning on the United States to engage Syria and Iran, arguing they could help lessen the violence in neighboring Iraq.

Until now, Rice and President Bush had said Syria knew what it could do to help Iraq - tighten its border - and did not need the United States to point it out. The United States says Syria looks the other way while fighters from many countries cross its border to join terrorist groups in Iraq.

Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters. "There has been some movement by the Syrians, " said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.

The administration has said it worries that Syria will use any contact with the United States as leverage in a dispute over alleged Syrian meddling in fragile Lebanon. Rice said that subject did not come up Thursday.

Thursday's meeting marked the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in protest and has given a cold shoulder to the Syrian government since. Syria denies involvement with the killing.