WASHINGTON—Defying the Bush administration, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida met Wednesday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying after the meeting that he believed that there was a "crack in the door" to continue discussions with Syria on curbing the violence in neighboring Iraq.
Midway through the Florida Democrat's conference call with reporters, however, the White House issued a statement denouncing the Syrian government's human rights record and calling on it to "immediately free all political prisoners."
"Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force," the statement from President Bush said.
The White House has expressed reluctance about diplomatic outreach to Syria because of the country's role in Lebanon, where it's suspected in several political assassinations, and its support of the militant Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which the United States has designated as terrorist organizations.
The administration said the statement on Syria's human rights was unrelated to Nelson's visit, but White House spokesman Tony Snow said the administration didn't "think that members of Congress ought to be going there." He said the White House had opposed Syria's involvement in Lebanon and noted that "it's a real stretch to think the Syrians don't know where we stand or what we think."
Nelson, a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees and an incoming member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that the State Department wasn't happy with his decision to meet with the Syrian president to discuss whether the country could help the United States find a way out of Iraq.
Nelson said that in the aftermath of the Iraq Study Group's recommendation for a stepped-up diplomatic effort involving Syria and Iran, "it was obvious that we were going to have contacts."
"Remember what the goal was," Nelson said. "The goal is to stabilize Iraq. I felt like that that was a nonstarter for them to say that I should ignore the (Iraq Study Group) report."
Nelson rejected suggestions that he was rebuffing Bush, saying he had a "constitutional role as a member of Congress. . . . I am on a fact-finding trip throughout the Middle East."
Nelson noted that other senators—John Kerry, D-Mass., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Arlen Spector, R-Pa.—are expected to follow him and that the State Department eventually supported his visit. Personnel from the U.S. embassies in Jordan and Damascus escorted him.
Nelson said Assad agreed that Syria and the United States had "a common interest to stabilize Iraq" and that Assad "clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate" with the U.S. or the Iraqi army to secure Iraq's border with Syria.
"He has a refugee problem," Nelson said of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who've crossed into Syria, fleeing the violence in their homeland.
The two met for about an hour in the presidential palace in a meeting that Nelson described as "cordial."
Nelson said Assad made no specific request of the United States, but that they had a "sharp disagreement of opinion" over Hezbollah and Hamas. Nelson said he made it clear to Assad that the United States wouldn't ease the pressure on Syria to stop backing the groups.
The senator said he'd urged Assad to support the release of Israeli soldiers whom Hezbollah had kidnapped, but that Assad had responded by noting that Israel is holding 20 Syrians, one of whom recently died of leukemia.
Nelson also said he'd told Assad that he planned to go to Beirut on Thursday to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose government Syria's ally Hezbollah is trying to unseat.
The senator said he was "not interested in going to Iran" but that he did raise with Assad the specter of a "nuclear-ized" Iran.
"He ought to understand that that's not only a threat to him, Syria, but to the entire world," Nelson said.
The senator's trip includes stops in Israel, Palestinian areas, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. He said he planned to report his findings to the State Department and the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.
Nelson noted that he spoke earlier with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who's rejected opening peace talks with Syria.
Olmert "said that he preferred that I not go, but knowing that I was going that he knew I had the interests of Israel at heart," Nelson said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map