US downplays Syria 'talks'


Summary

"Any conversations would not be bilateral discussions. They would not be formal negotiations," White House spokesman Tony Snow said when asked about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with her Syrian counterpart.

Ms Rice held an unprecedented meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem during meetings on Iraqi stability at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"The one and only topic, again, in Sharm el- Sheikh is to say: 'It is time now to step forward and support the government of Iraq.' That is the strong message that is being sent," said Mr Snow.

"And for those who are undermining, they need to stop and they need to begin to support the democratically elected government of Iraq. And it really goes no further than that," he said.

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.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit escorted Muallem into a room where Ms Rice was waiting and then withdrew shortly afterwards.

"I would say it was professional, businesslike. It was very concrete … I didn't lecture him, he didn't lecture me," Ms Rice told reporters after the half-hour meeting.

Mr Snow described the meeting as one of a series of "sidebar, pull-aside conversations" and insisted: "I'm not sure that they had formal discussions. I'm not sure it was just (them) two."

"It is a far different thing diplomatically than setting up meetings and setting up a broad agenda. This is a conversation about the subject of the conference itself," he said.

Democrats in Congress, who have been highly critical of the US reluctance to engage Syria, welcomed the talks, which they said were overdue.

"I appreciate the fact that this administration, which has been so quick to criticise those of us who have met with Syrian leaders, has finally decided to take this important diplomatic step," said former presidential candidate John Kerry, who visited Syria in December.

Congressman Tom Lantos, who joined House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi in Damascaus in April on a trip which angered the White House, said the talks were an improvement to the "administration's ostrich policy."

"It is infinitely better to confront in a firm but civilized way those with whom we disagree than simply to give them the silent treatment," he said.


"Any conversations would not be bilateral discussions. They would not be formal negotiations," White House spokesman Tony Snow said when asked about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with her Syrian counterpart.

Ms Rice held an unprecedented meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem during meetings on Iraqi stability at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"The one and only topic, again, in Sharm el- Sheikh is to say: 'It is time now to step forward and support the government of Iraq.' That is the strong message that is being sent," said Mr Snow.

"And for those who are undermining, they need to stop and they need to begin to support the democratically elected government of Iraq. And it really goes no further than that," he said.

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.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit escorted Muallem into a room where Ms Rice was waiting and then withdrew shortly afterwards.

"I would say it was professional, businesslike. It was very concrete … I didn't lecture him, he didn't lecture me," Ms Rice told reporters after the half-hour meeting.

Mr Snow described the meeting as one of a series of "sidebar, pull-aside conversations" and insisted: "I'm not sure that they had formal discussions. I'm not sure it was just (them) two."

"It is a far different thing diplomatically than setting up meetings and setting up a broad agenda. This is a conversation about the subject of the conference itself," he said.

Democrats in Congress, who have been highly critical of the US reluctance to engage Syria, welcomed the talks, which they said were overdue.

"I appreciate the fact that this administration, which has been so quick to criticise those of us who have met with Syrian leaders, has finally decided to take this important diplomatic step," said former presidential candidate John Kerry, who visited Syria in December.

Congressman Tom Lantos, who joined House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi in Damascaus in April on a trip which angered the White House, said the talks were an improvement to the "administration's ostrich policy."

"It is infinitely better to confront in a firm but civilized way those with whom we disagree than simply to give them the silent treatment," he said.