WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday stepped up its pressure on senators who are engaged in direct talks with Syrian leaders, saying their trips to Damascus risk undermining U.S. efforts to encourage democracy in the Middle East.
The visits come at a particularly difficult time for the Bush administration, which has largely rejected the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the United States open discussions with Syria and Iran on ways to bring the sectarian violence in Iraq under control.
With the elevation of Democrats to a majority position in Congress next month adding to the uncertainty, the flurry of visits, particularly by Democrats, has prompted the administration to go out of its way to emphasize that it retains control over American diplomatic efforts in the region.
The administration's relations with Damascus are in a deep freeze, in part because of suspicions that Syria was involved in the assassinations of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year and Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel last month, and that the government in Damascus has blocked international attempts to investigate the killings.
The administration also cites Syria's support for insurgents in Iraq.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow suggested Thursday that just by engaging Syrian President Bashar Assad in diplomatic dialogue, visiting senators could dilute Washington's hard-line approach, even if they adopt the administration's language.
"The Syrians have been adventurous and meddlesome in Iraq and in Lebanon and working against the causes of democracy in both of those countries," Snow said.
On Wednesday, the administration criticized Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) shortly after he met with Assad in Damascus.
On Thursday, Snow extended that criticism to two other Democratic senators, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and a Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
All of them are planning visits to Damascus, the Syrian capital, in coming weeks.
Specter has traveled to Syria 15 times since 1984, most recently in 2003.
His office declined to respond to Snow's remarks but called attention to a speech Specter gave in the Senate last week in which he urged President Bush to negotiate directly with Syria.
Dodd and Kerry plan to travel together to Syria in coming days.
In a statement responding to Snow's comments, Dodd, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted Congress' equal status with the executive branch under the Constitution and added, "I can't think of a more critical part of the world than the Middle East, and I can't think of a more critical player affecting events in the region for good or for bad than Syria."
Kerry's spokesman, David Wade, pointed out the support the Iraq Study Group gave in its report, issued last week, for talks with Syria, and said his boss and Dodd would be "engaged in fact-finding, not negotiating, and there's no better way to test Syrian intentions than by asking the tough questions face to face."
Snow said that Nelson had been told before he met with Assad of the administration's displeasure with his plans and that his public comments should serve to notify Dodd, Kerry and Specter of the White House's opposition to their meetings in Damascus.
"The Syrians should have absolutely no doubt," Snow said, "that the position of the United States government is the same as it has been, which is: They know what they need to do. They need to stop harboring terrorists. They need to stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere."
He said that regardless of the message delivered by the senators, "the Syrians have already won a PR victory" because the visits were "lending ... legitimacy" to the Assad government.