Questions about a changing US policy in the Middle East
US Secretary Rice yesterday met her Syrian counterpart Moallem. She might meet Iran’s Foreign Minister Mottaki today. Officially about the Iraq crisis, yesterday’s tête-à-tête also touched upon bilateral relations. Both Lebanon and Israel are keeping a close watch on the event.

Sharm El-Sheikh (AsiaNews) – For Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, the meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “frank and clear.” For Ms Rice, “it was professional, businesslike. It was very concrete . . . I didn't lecture him, he didn't lecture me.”

The long-awaited, feared but also hoped for meeting between the top foreign policy decision-makers of Syria and the United States finally took place yesterday afternoon in Sharm El-Sheikh on the sidelines of the Iraq conference.

It is the highest level meeting the two countries have had since January 2005, but it is especially a sign that Washington might be more open towards Damascus.

The United States had hitherto considered Syria a backer of international terrorism and tried to isolate it; now the Middle Eastern country is seen as an important player in regional stability, and an attempt is being made to weak its alliance with Iran.

Something is also brewing in Damascus, increasingly concerned about its international isolation and the consequences the international tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri might have on the Assad regime. Syria is seen by many as involved in the affair.

Syria’s state-owned news agency SANA reported yesterday that “[b]oth sides also reviewed the bilateral relations [. . .] and the importance of developing them to serve peace, security and stability in the region.”

For her part, Secretary Rice said that she “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.”

Similarly, “[t]here is some movement from the Syrians. “Major General William Caldwell told reporters. “There has in fact been a reduction in the amount of foreign fighter flow making its way into Iraq at this point from Syria.”

Syria also announced yesterday that in the last few weeks it has launched a series of operations against men linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Rice-Moallem meeting was front-page in many Middle Eastern papers. In addition to broad summaries, the press in Lebanon reported that Moallem and a “US official” said that Lebanon was not discussed even though the issue of the international tribunal will soon come up at the United Nations Security Council.

In Israel, always sensitive about what happens in Damascus and which it has recently accused of building a large underground missile base, the Jerusalem Post reported that according to “government sources” nothing was said in the talks that needed to concern Jerusalem. For these officials, the reason for the talks was the legitimate US concern over Iraq, and Israel doesn't see anything negative in the US wanting to talk about issues like Iraq and Islamic radicalism with Syria. The meeting though does “represent a change in US policy” even if it is not a negotiation.

There is still talk today in Sharm El-Sheikh that Secretary Rice might meet her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. The two met over lunch and exchanged greeted each other.

The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations since 1979.