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U.S. Pressures Syria Through Regional Friends

DON GONYEA, host:

An international conference in Rome, aimed at stopping the violence along the Israeli-Lebanon border, has wrapped up. Senior officials from Europe, United States, and the Middle East affirmed the need for a ceasefire, but said it should be lasting and permanent.

As diplomatic efforts continue, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams has been talking to White House officials about the president's view on all of this, and he joins me now. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS, reporting:

Good morning, Don.

GONYEA: So European nations are reluctant to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and the United States says it won't either. What is the administration thinking in this area?

WILLIAMS: Don, the president it still hoping to persuade some European countries to join in a multinational peacekeeping effort. But White House officials say the president's primary focus remains on building a coalition of Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt - and hoping that they will bolster the Lebanese government. That may include acting as part of a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

For the U.S., the key to convincing those countries to act as an alliance is to make the case to them that there in danger from Iran's expanding influence in the region. The president believes he has support from Arab leaders on this point, at least behind closed doors.

But publicly, as you know, those Arab leaders are pressing the U.S. to lean on Israel to halt its bombing campaign.

GONYEA: Yesterday we heard President Bush say he wants to address the root cause of the violence in the Middle East in order to bring about a lasting peace. That's the language they've really been sticking to. What are the White House officials saying about that now?

WILLIAMS: Well, Don, they're saying that - the president sees Iran acting to arm and support Hezbollah. He sees Iran exerting influence on Syria, another Hezbollah patron. The President also views Iran as playing a role in the ongoing violence in Iraq.

GONYEA: On Sunday, Syria's Ambassador to the U.S. said his country is open to direct talks with the United States. Is the president open to talking with the Syrian President Assad?

WILLIAMS: U.S. officials acknowledge that repositioning Syria is critical because of its influence over Hezbollah and ties to Iran. But the president is less interested in direct talks with Syria than he is at having those moderate Arab countries deal with Syria, even squeezing Syria politically and economically, to draw Damascus into that Arab coalition that would be a counter weight to Iran.

GONYEA: And finally, as hostilities continue along the Israeli-Lebanon border, there is another conflict going on between Israel and the Palestinians. Is the administration still monitoring and doing things to defuse that conflict?

WILLIAMS: Don, at this point there's little attention on the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. At best, the administration hopes to offer support to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian authority, and to refuse to deal with the more radical Hamas party.

On Sunday, the president met with the Saudi ambassador and foreign minister here in Washington and he has been on the phone with other Arab leaders to share his view, that Iran is the hidden hand that's playing, working against the peace in the region.

GONYEA: Juan, thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome Don.

GONYEA: NPR senior Correspondent Juan Williams.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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