(AP) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday the United States' poor relationship with Syria is overstated, pointing out that there are existing channels for talking with Syrian leaders about resolving the Mideast crisis when they're ready to talk.
En route to the region, Rice noted that the United States still has a diplomatic mission and State Department officials working in the Syrian capital. That presence, she said, is a "channel for dealing with Syria."
"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said. "I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it's because we don't talk to the Syrians, reports Trend.
"It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations," she said. "We do."
The State Department considers Syria one of the world's state sponsors of terror. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has blamed it, along with Iran, for stoking the recent violence in the Middle East by encouraging the Lebanese Hezbollah militia to attack northern Israel.
The U.S. ambassador to Damascus was recalled last year after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian officials have been blamed for the murder, which Damascus denies.
Rice's words to reporters on a flight from Washington to a refueling stop in Ireland came as she embarks on a difficult trip to the Middle East, where she will meet with key players trying to resolve the violence along the tense Lebanese-Israeli border.
And they came as Arab diplomats and analysts said Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working to entice Syria to end support for Hezbollah, a move that is central to resolving the conflict in Lebanon and unhitching Damascus from its alliance with Iran, the Shiite Muslim guerrillas' other main backer.
Arab diplomats in Cairo said the United States had signaled a willingness to re-engage Syria through Washington's encouragement of the Egyptians and Saudis to lean on Damascus to stop backing Hezbollah.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensititity of talks, Egyptian diplomats told the AP in Cairo that the American readiness to engage Syria grew in part out of a visit to Washington last week by Egypt's chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit where they met with Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
"The two officials told the administration that the best way to solve this problem is through isolating Syria from Iran, the two main backers of Hezbollah and Hamas," said one diplomat. "The interests of those countries are not always compatible, and if Syria is given a carrot it could help solve the crisis, leaving Iran in the shadows."
In a brazen raid into Israel on July 12, Hezbollah killed eight and captured two Israeli soldiers, provoking Israel's biggest military campaign against Lebanon in 24 years. The fighting has left hundreds of civilians dead, mostly in Lebanon.
Rice is facing increasing international pressure to call for an immediate cease fire. Yet she and President Bush have resisted, saying that any peace agreement must come with right conditions to ensure that it is sustainable. They particularly want to see an agreement that would help Lebanon control its entire territory, including the southern third that is dominated by Hezbollah.
Arabic for "Party of God," Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political party with its own militia. Funded by Iran, Syria and other individual donors around the globe, it fills gaps left by Lebanon's weak government and provides the bulk of the health care, schools and other social services in southern Lebanon.
Yet Rice said any cease fire agreement would have to be signed by Lebanon, not Hezbollah.
"The last time that I looked, Hezbollah had even run for office as a part of the government of Lebanon," she said, referring to Hezbollah's presence in the Parliament.
"If there is a cessation of hostilities, the government of Lebanon is going to have to be the party," she said. "Let's treat the government of Lebanon as the sovereign government that it is."
Rice has tried to walk delicately between supporting the democratic government of Lebanon, while also not dictating to its ally Israel how it should handle its own security. Her posture has frustrated numerous allies.
"We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Rice said. But she added that if the violence ends only to restart within weeks, "then all of the carnage that Hezbollah launched by its illegal activities abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks we will have gotten nothing from that."
Rice plans stops in Israel and then to Rome, where she will join a high-level conference of key players of the Middle East and the international community to focus on the political underpinnings of a potential cease fire. She's also focused on humanitarian aid for war-torn Lebanon.
Before departing Washington, Rice and Bush were joined by other senior administration officials at a White House meeting with Saudi leaders, who urged the United States to use its formidable clout with Israel to help end the fighting.
Rice said the Saudis are urging the international community to use the so-called Taif Agreement and a similar 2004 U.N. resolution as the foundation for peace. Taif calls for the government of Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah within six months and underscores that Syria should not be allowed "to constitute a source of threat to the security of Lebanon under any circumstances."
The Saudis have a special tie to Taif, because it gets its name from the Saudi city where the agreement was reached. Should it become a successful vehicle for peace, it would provide an Arab solution to the crisis hanging over Israel and Lebanon.
"We and the Saudis have the same goal," Rice said. "The Saudis talked a great deal about the importance of Taif and getting a solution that indeed does lead to the fulfillment of the obligations" under that 19-year-old agreement.
Rice also plans to attend an Asia regional forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Thursday and Friday, where North Korea's recent missile launches and nuclear program are expected to be on the forefront of the agenda. She has not ruled out returning to the Middle East on her way home, "if that would be necessary or helpful," she said.