SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held an unprecedented meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem on 3 May on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit escorted Muallem into a room where Rice was waiting and then withdrew shortly afterwards, an AFP journalist reported.
The two diplomats, who were attending meetings on Iraqi stability at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, discussed security issues in Iraq.
“I would say it was professional, businesslike. It was very concrete... I didn’t lecture him, he didn’t lecture me,” Rice told reporters after the half-hour meeting.
Washington accuses Damascus of letting anti-US insurgents cross from Syria to Iraq, and of supporting terrorist groups in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.
“Syrians clearly say that they believe that stability in Iraq is in their interest. Acts will speak louder than words, and I think we will have to see how this develops,” Rice said.
“This is not a favour to the US, it is an opportunity to help stabilise Iraq and therefore serve the neighbourhood,” she said.
The US administration has been under intense pressure to engage directly with Syria and Iran, in order to help stabilise Iraq and end the costly US occupation.
“I made clear that we don’t want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but there needs to be some basis for a better relationship,” Rice said.
Muallem called the meeting “frank and constructive.”
“We discussed the situation in Iraq and how to achieve stability and security in Iraq and also bilateral relations,” he told reporters.
“We agreed that this issue about Iraq, we will follow up on it. We will follow up about all security issues,” Muallem said in English.
The last high-ranking US administration official to meet Syrian officials was then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, in Damascus in January 2005.
Rice defended her meeting with Muallem after Democrats in Washington accused the administration of President George W. Bush of double standards for condemning a visit to Damascus on 4 April by House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Well, I think there’s a difference in going to Damascus and having broad-scale discussions about a whole range of issues with Syria and that was the issue at the time,” she told journalists.
“And I think having the Secretary of State take an opportunity to speak to the foreign minister of Syria about a concrete problem involving Iraq, at an Iraqi neighbours conference, makes more sense.”
Rice also had a brief exchange with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki over lunch and may yet hold further talks with him before the conference ends.
“There was an exchange of some words, yes. They are civilised people after all,” said Abul Gheit, adding that the lunch was attended only by foreign ministers.
When asked if Rice and Mottaki sat next to each other, he answered: “Beside each other you mean? No, but the table was a small table.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the brief exchange but added that it did not go beyond basic civilities: “They said hello.”
Speculation has mounted in recent days over possible talks between Rice and Mottaki, in what would be the highest-level bilateral discussions between the two countries since they broke off ties in 1980.
Despite Thursday’s brief encounter being void of political substance, it was believed to reflect a new willingness on the part of both Washington and Tehran to engage in some form of dialogue.
Iranian officials remained vague about the possibility of more talks, however.
“It is not anticipated -- allow events to take their natural course,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the Al-Aalam satellite channel.
The current contacts mark a shift in US policy towards old foes Syria and Iran, which Washington has repeatedly accused of funding and abetting Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency and hardline Shiite militias.
Both countries are seen as crucial in efforts to improve security in Iraq, and will attend a planned meeting of Iraq’s neighbours on Friday.
The US military’s chief spokesman in Baghdad said that Syria seems to have taken measures to stem the flow of foreign extremist fighters crossing its border into Iraq.
“There is some movement from the Syrians. There has in fact been a reduction in the amount of foreign fighter flow making its way into Iraq at this point from Syria,” Major General William Caldwell told reporters.
Caldwell said he did not know why Syria appeared to be changing its stance.