Exclusive: Petraeus Wants to Go to Syria; Bush Administration Says No

Petraeus proposed visiting Syria but Bush administration rejected the idea.

ByABC News
October 30, 2008, 1:51 PM

Oct. 30, 2008— -- Apparently Gen. David Petraeus does not agree with the Bush administration that the road to Damascus is a dead end.

ABC News has learned, Petraeus proposed visiting Syria shortly after taking over as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.

The idea was swiftly rejected by Bush administration officials at the White House, State Department and the Pentagon.

Petraeus, who becomes the commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Friday, had hoped to meet in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Petraeus proposed the trip, and senior officials objected, before the covert U.S. strike earlier this week on a target inside Syria's border with Iraq.

Officials familiar with Petraeus' thinking on the subject say he wants to engage Syria in part because he believes that U.S. diplomacy can be used to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. He plans to continue pushing the idea.

"When the timing is right, we ought to go in there and have a good discussion with the Syrians," said a Defense Department official close to Petraeus. "It's a meaningful dialogue to have."

Petraeus would likely find a more receptive audience for his approach in an Obama administration, given Barack Obama's views on the need to engage America's enemies.

The Bush administration's objections to Petraeus' proposed trip don't come as a surprise. The United States barely has any diplomatic relations with Syria. There is a U.S. Embassy in Damascus, but there has been no ambassador there since 2005. The last senior U.S. official to visit Syria was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in April 2007, a trip the White House strongly opposed. At the time, President Bush said, "Sending delegations hasn't worked. It's just simply been counterproductive."

When she was in Syria, Pelosi said the "road to Damascus is the road to peace."

At the time, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe shot back: "Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq. It's lined with the victims in Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy there. It's lined with human rights activists trying for freedom and democracy in Syria."