Condi Avoids Syria Snapshot

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A picture, stripped of caption and context, can be made to mean just about anything anyone wants to it to mean — that's why Sean McCormack, press secretary to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, barred photographers from recording the obligatory grip-and-grin at her meeting last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on the fringes of the Iraqi "neighbor's conference" in Egypt.

"Pictures could leave the impression of a kind of relationship that at this point doesn't exist," a senior Administration hand says of McCormack's extraordinary decree. The Syrians "typically use those sorts of events to try to say, oh, look, no problem." Damascus, he added, had used pictures of President Bashar Assad meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suggest, at least to casual viewers throughout the Muslim world, that relations between the U.S. and Syria were normalizing.

Rice is determined to avoid adding a picture of herself with Syria's foreign minister to Assad's brag-book, at least until he shuts down the pipeline of Sunni militants that runs through Syria into Iraq.

"People who are going to the jihad in Iraq are from as far away as Morocco, and their favorite transit point is the Damascus airport," says a senior U.S. official. Syrian officials counter that the U.S. can't close its own borders with Mexico and Canada. But Rice and her team pointed out that the Syrian government is one of the few that doesn't demand that visitors from other Arab nations obtain visas to enter their territory. Moreover, says a U.S. official, "We're not asking them to do us any favors. We believe they understand that being a transit point for violent extremists going to Iraq is dangerous for them." (The strongest internal challenge to the Syrian regime remains that of radical Sunni Islamists organized in the Muslim Brotherhood.) U.S. officials add that if violence in Iraq abates, so will the flood of Iraqi refugees into Syria.

Foreign Minister Moallem seemed to agree with those arguments during the meeting with Rice in Egypt, U.S. officials say, but he made no commitment to shut down what one U.S. official calls "the intake valve" at the airport. If that happens, the next meeting could include snapshots.

Meanwhile, Rice is using a photo opportunity to send a message of her own, Thursday, having invited the press to watch her viewing an exhibition of Iranian art and chatting up the visiting artists at an international center in Washington. "It makes clear that we have no problem with the Iranian people," McCormack says. "We want more interaction with them. It's a great culture. It's a great country and we shouldn't let any of the policy differences between the United States and this Iranian Government get in the way of those kinds of exchanges." The Administration hopes this may help convince Iranians to vote out President Ahmadinejad and elect a government more inclined to cooperate with the West. But achieving that may take a lot more than cultural exchanges.