Condoleezza Rice has been floating the idea of a significant policy shift toward Syria, recently introducing a new talking point speaking of hopes to "cooperate" with Damascus in working to stem the flow of foreign fighters across the border into Iraq.
Prior to the Secretary of State's brief meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at the Iraq International Compact conference in Cairo last Thursday, her standard policy talking point placed the complete burden of responsibility on Syria to control the infiltration of foreign fighters.
A review of her interviews immediately following the encounter with Moalem shows how closely Rice stays on this message, despite whatever the Syrian foreign minister had just said to her.
In a conversation with John Sciutto of ABC News, Rice explained her decision to talk with Moalem:
"It's not a bad chance to remind the Syrians of their obligations, to talk about -- talk to them about the need to stop the flow of those foreign fighters, the biggest source probably of suicide bombers.
"And so in this context where the neighbors are supposedly taking on the task of having to stabilize Iraq, it's a good chance to reinforce that message....
"I'm one who believes that actions speak louder than words and I hope the Syrians in their own interest will stop the flow of foreign fighters."
Rice told Martin Fletcher of NBC News that the message for Syria at the conference was that:
"The flow of foreign fighters across that border needs to stop; that the suicide bombings are, we believe, largely a result of foreign fighters coming across its borders; and to tell the Syrians that if, in fact, they believe, as they say they believe, that a stable Iraq is in their interest, that they need to act in that way....
"They say that they understand that it is in their interest not to have extremists puddling, gathering in Syria, who could be a destabilizing force in Syria itself. So actions speak louder than words, and we'll see."
The Secretary described her conversation with the Syrian foreign minister for Sheila MacVicar of CBS News:
"I made clear that the flow of foreign fighters is a real problem across that border and Syria needs to do more to stem the flow of foreign fighters because we believe that that flow of foreign fighters is one of the principal sources of suicide bombers....
"I think if the Syrians are finally recognizing that the (inaudible) of extremists in Syria is actually a threat to Syria and that there are obligations to defend that border, then all the better. And I think it's important to continue to explore ways that Syria might be able to discharge its obligations."
By Friday morning, Rice's report to Washington detailing her conversation with the Syrian foreign minister must have sparked approval for an official softening in tone. The suggestion of a possibility for cooperation was raised for the first time in her final press conference in Cairo on Friday.
Responding to a question about her meeting with Moalem, the same basic query she had answered with parroted talking points for ABC, NBC, and CBS the day before, Rice said:
"I thought that this was an opportunity in the context of this neighbors' conference to talk to the Syrian Foreign Minister about how we see the situation and about the need to stop the flow of foreign fighters. We would hope that there can be greater cooperation on stopping the flow of foreign fighters, but that was really the extent of our conversation. Let's take this one step at a time."
In a near-slip uncharacteristic for the usually tightly-controlled diplospeak of the Secretary of State, Rice seemed to almost admit the significance of the shift before getting back on message, as she continued:
"This is an important -- I think it was an important conversation. I am very glad that had the opportunity here in this context, but this was not about anything other than Iraq and we will certainly see whether we can observe words being followed by deeds. That's what we'd like to see."
The Bush Administration may continue to maintain the official line that it expects action out of Syria, but the extension of an offer of bilateral cooperation on border security issues--considering the level of normalization in relations that would entail--indicates that there may be more of a tit-for-tat in the works than US officials have yet specifically acknowledged.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told NBC's Ann Curry yesterday, "It's too early to say it's a breakthrough. We were very clear to Ms. Rice when our minister told her that the beginning is having normal diplomatic relations and political cooperation."
Assad also compared his border with Iraq to the US border with Mexico, pointing out the well-known porousness of that boundary. He said that he had increased the number of soldiers along the border since the beginning of the war, "but we don't have any partner to cooperate with regard to this issue."
Later Monday, Rice responded with another public indication that Assad may soon have a partner for cooperation, telling Charlie Rose:
"If there is to be a better relationship, of course, we can't have a situation in which the Syrians are permitting foreign forces to come across that border and kill Iraqis and kill Americans. And so that would -- it would be a good step to have cooperation about border security for Iraq."
The Secretary of State does not choose her vocabulary carelessly. "Cooperation" has become the new buzzword she is using when talking about Iraq-Syria border security. The US may "take this one step at a time," but Syria watchers can expect the next step to be a pretty big one.