NEW YORK – The U.S. is using the largest gathering of world leaders to try to keep up international pressure on Syria by branding it a meddlesome neighbor and a holdout against democratic advances in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice takes up the charge in meetings with other diplomats this week.
After a week of international meetings at the United Nations, Rice concludes her participation with a high-level meeting on Lebanon and a separate gathering of the nations and organizations helping to steer Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace table. The sessions will be the first major international gatherings on the Middle East since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip.
No major announcements on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are expected after Tuesday’s meeting of the key Mideast peacemakers – the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia.
Although the Europeans, in particular, want to pressure Israel to continue the momentum of the Gaza withdrawal into the West Bank, the Bush administration probably will urge patience.
The U.N. gathering has seen some Mideast diplomacy that would have been shocking just a year or two ago.
Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia have held high-level public meetings with Israel – a rare event for Muslim countries. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received particular praise at the summit for the Gaza pullout, deemed a “courageous” act by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
When Sharon met on Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, it was their first talks in months and a further sign of warming relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world after Israel ended its 38-year Gaza occupation. The pullout is Israel’s first evacuation of territory Palestinians claim for a future state.
On Saturday, Rice had her picture taken with her counterpart from Libya. Washington still considers the North African nation a state sponsor of terrorism, but it has dropped economic penalties and strengthened diplomatic ties since Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction in December 2003.
As for Syria, also on the State Department’s list of terrorism outlaws, its relations with the U.S. are getting worse.
Today’s meeting of European and Arab powers with economic ties to Lebanon was giving Rice a chance to argue that Syria was continuing to disrupt politics and daily life in Lebanon.
After effectively occupying Lebanon for nearly three decades. Syrian troops left last spring in the wake of anti-Syrian street demonstrations and political turmoil. The United States maintains that Syrian security agents remained.
The United States also contends Syria is turning a blind eye to foreign terrorists and arms flowing over its long border with Iraq; Syria denies the charge.
“Part of the strategy is keeping the rhetoric up to remind the Syrians that they are not out of the box yet and that Lebanese democracy has the full support of the Western powers,” said Edward Walker, president of the independent Middle East Institute in Washington.
The administration claims some credit for fostering a new democratic government in Lebanon, largely through a U.N. resolution a year ago. The resolution, sponsored with France, called for immediate Syrian withdrawal and for political self-determination in Lebanon.
Syria initially ignored the U.N. statement, but it later formed a framework to monitor troop withdrawal and free elections.
A new government, largely independent of Syria, took power in Lebanon over the summer. It is saddled with huge debt, other economic problems and sectarian infighting.
Today’s conference was meant to offer debt relief and new pledges of economic help to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
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