Bush administration criticizes senators' contacts with Syria

NATION DIGEST

December 15, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The White House stepped up its pressure yesterday on senators engaging in direct talks with Syrian leaders, saying their trips to Damascus risk undermining U.S. efforts to encourage democracy in the Middle East.

The visits come at a particularly difficult time for the Bush administration, which has largely rejected the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the United States engage with Syria and Iran to bring the sectarian violence in Iraq under control.

The administration's relations with Damascus are in a deep freeze in response to, among other things, suspicions that Syria has been involved in at least two high-profile political assassinations in Lebanon and has blocked international attempts to investigate the killings.

White House press secretary Tony Snow raised the prospect yesterday that just by engaging Syrian President Bashar Assad in diplomatic dialogue, visiting senators - even if they perfectly mimic the administration's language - could dilute Washington's hard-line approach.

On Wednesday, the administration criticized Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, shortly after he had met with Assad in Damascus. Yesterday, Snow extended that criticism to Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts - all planning visits to Damascus in coming weeks.

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