San Diego Union Tribune

April 6, 2007

Issa's Syria visit meets with Bush's disapproval

GOP lawmaker's trip in 2003 was praised


WASHINGTON – Three years ago this month, the Bush administration was coordinating with Rep. Darrell Issa about a meeting he planned with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Darrell Issa

The Vista Republican had another meeting with Assad yesterday, and the tone from the White House was far different. Whatever else Issa's trip may have accomplished, it seemed to take what little air was left out of the partisan rage over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's meeting with Assad just a day earlier.

President Bush's sharp criticism of Pelosi for her visit left the White House little room to move when asked about Issa's travels.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush doesn't “think this is helpful.”

“The administration's position on members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, is very clear: We do not think it's productive; we do not think it is useful,” Johndroe said. “As we have said for some time now, well before the most high-level visits that have taken place to Damascus – we just don't think this is helpful. The Syrians still don't change their behavior, and this only makes them feel validated.”

The White House was quick to trumpet that view as she headed toward Damascus, Pelosi has pointed out, but did not do so when three Republican congressmen met with Syrian leaders only a few days before.



The White House said Pelosi's visit undermined the nation's policy of isolating Syria, which it accuses of supporting terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah and aiding the insurgency in Iraq. The Bush administration has rejected direct talks with Syria.

Back in April 2003, the administration took a different approach to Syria. Issa, a Lebanese-American, went to Damascus to ease tensions between the United States and Syria. He won assurances from Assad that the country would not give asylum to Iraqi war criminals and would expel any entering the country. Issa's trip was credited with smoothing the way for a visit by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

At the time, Issa said the Bush administration had spoken with him about visiting the nation “because dialogue (with Syria) had fallen apart during the Iraq war.” Issa is a member of the House Committee on Intelligence.

Issa's trip to the Middle East seemed an asset for the administration. That was then.

Issa has increasingly become a thorn in the administration's side. Recently, he has questioned the manner in which the Justice Department fired eight U.S. attorneys, including San Diego's Carol Lam, even though she had been a target of Issa's criticism.

And yesterday, he seemed to be channeling Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat. He told reporters in the Middle East that Bush has failed to promote the dialogue necessary to resolve disagreements between the United States and Syria.

“That's an important message to realize: We have tensions, but we have two functioning embassies,” Issa said after separate meetings with Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

The embassy may be functioning, but the U.S. ambassador was recalled in 2005 after allegations that the Syrian government might have had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Issa and Assad discussed “the mechanisms and means that must be available to build a solid U.S.-Syrian relationship,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Al-Moallem stressed Syria's keenness to talk to the United States and said the congressional visits helped to “formulate a joint vision for finding solutions to the problems in the region,” SANA reported.

More than a dozen U.S. lawmakers have traveled to Damascus to meet with Assad in the past four months after the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group recommended to Bush that engaging with Syria and Iran could help stabilize Iraq.

The California Democratic Party was quick to seize on the irony of Issa's visit, saying in a release that it “will undoubtedly enrage the California Republican Party, GOP bloggers and right-wing radio hosts across the country.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.