Russia, US at odds over Syria's ME role

Lavrov: Damascus could play a constructive part in Mideast peacemaking.

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February 3, 2007 03:17
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Russia's top diplomat on Friday rebuked the Bush administration for its resistance to diplomacy with distasteful Middle East governments and said Syria should be part of international efforts to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looking on, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested the United States is being shortsighted by not engaging countries who could help fix problems from Iraq to Lebanon to a long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace. "We believe that it is counterproductive to isolate anybody," Lavrov said after a gathering of world powers that hope to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Lavrov did not address his remarks to the United States, but Russia increasingly has opposed or resisted US efforts to isolate Iran and Syria as well as the Iranian-backed Hamas militants now in control of most of the Palestinian government. "We are in favor of involving all those who can contribute to progress in this process," Lavrov said. "And definitely, in this case, Syria could play a constructive role." Lavrov said Syria has responded positively to a Russian request to mediate between Hamas and the Western-backed Fatah faction, and he defended Russian contacts with Hamas, which the United States considers a terror organization. The Russian diplomat spoke in Russian, and his words were translated. "I don't think that to resolve this problem, just like any problem that exists in the world, that you could do it through boycott and isolation," Lavrov said of the US-orchestrated strategy of diplomatic and financial isolation of Hamas. His implicit criticism followed more frontal critiques this week from former secretaries of state James A. Baker III, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. All said the Bush administration should talk to Iran and Syria in hopes of reducing violence in Iraq. Baker, a Republican who served under President George W. Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, also said that renewed US dialogue with Syria could remove a major roadblock to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Baker said, "We could get them (Syria) to get Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist. It would be a huge step in the right direction." The Bush administration has refused high-level contact with Syria, citing Syrian support for groups like Hamas. The administration also suggests Damascus would try to bargain for renewed influence in Lebanon and a pass for its possible involvement in the assassination of former anti-Syrian Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago. He had worked relentlessly to peel his country away from Syrian domination. "Syria doesn't need the United States to tell it what it can do to be a stabilizing force," Rice said Friday.

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