"We are not against the US," Moallem said. "To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that, in our opinion, serves American interests in the region." He described America and the region as being at a "crossroads" and explained: "Either we go for stability, or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over."
The comments by Moallem are the most detailed Syrian response to the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker and ex-Representative Lee Hamilton. As we made a line-by-line review of the group's recommendations involving Syria, Moallem expressed support for nearly every item. When I asked if Syrian President Bashar Assad endorsed these positions, he answered: "He is the leader. I am expressing his ideas."
Moallem portrayed Syria as a potential partner in stabilizing the region. He referred at one point to "the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel." Later, he said that while Syria favors a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq, a rapid American withdrawal before Iraqis are ready to take over security would be "an immoral step."
The Bush administration has shown little interest so far in dialogue with Damascus, and the administration has been sharply critical of Syria's campaign against Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a key US ally. Administration officials have said in the past that although Syria speaks of a desire for cooperation and dialogue, its actions - in Lebanon and elsewhere - have not matched its words.
A former Syrian ambassador to Washington, Moallem worked with Baker on diplomatic issues involving the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which opened the way for peace talks between Syria and Israel that were ultimately unsuccessful. The Syrian said that when they met again last September to discuss the Iraq Study Group, Baker asked him: "'Walid, how can we return to the Syrian-American situation of the early 1990s, when we succeeded to build mutual trust?' I told him: 'This is our wish also in Syria."'
Moallem argued that the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Syria have failed, and that it's time for the administration to try another approach based on shared Syrian-American interests in three goals for the Mideast: peace, stability and prosperity. He said that although Syria hoped to recover the Golan Heights, it was not setting this as a precondition for dialogue.
"A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," he said. He denied that Syria was seeking greater power in Lebanon as the price for its help in Iraq. "This is not a deal. This is not, 'we will do this if you give us Lebanon,"' he said. But he did note that if America wanted dialogue, "you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability."
Syria has already begun implementing some of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations for Iraq, Moallem said. With this month's restoration of Syrian-Iraqi diplomatic ties, he explained, the two countries are beginning joint efforts to control their border and increase political and economic cooperation, as called for by the report. "We are not doing this to please the US. We are doing what is in the Syrian and Iraqi interest," he said.
Moallem said he supported the report's recommendation for an Iraq Support Group that would draw in Syria and other neighboring states, but only after the Iraqis themselves had agreed on plans for disarming militias and ending sectarian divisions. He said the timetable for withdrawing US troops "depends on Iraqi ability to take over security," and that America's military role there should focus on training rather than fighting.
On the specific Baker-Hamilton recommendations involving Lebanon, Moallem also expressed general support. He said Syria wasn't shipping arms to Hizbullah, would "continue our cooperation" with the United Nations investigation of the murder for former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and was "ready" to "achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners" with Israel. He also disclosed what he said was a previously unreported effort by Syria and Qatar to broker a compromise between the radical Palestinian group Hamas and the moderate Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Is this Syrian gambit for real? Is Moallem serious in his offer to talk with America about a comprehensive package of peace with Israel, stability for Iraq and compromise in Lebanon? The answer is that there's really only one way to find out, which is to explore further the ideas the Syrian foreign minister has put on the table.
Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.