The US has accused Syria of supporting the insurgency in Iraq and trying to destabilise Lebanon. Rice’s Europe trip was aimed at securing international support to apply concerted international pressure against Damascus at the UN Security Council before the end of October. Rice on 18 October also met UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the matter.

Suggestions that Syria may be trying to negotiate a deal with the US to end its international isolation were described by a Syrian official as being ‘out of the question’. Media reports had suggested that Damascus was seeking a deal with Washington to avoid a showdown. The US has demanded that Syria cuts off its alleged support for Iraqi insurgents and agrees to anyone implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Pressure on Syria has been growing in anticipation of the release on 21 October of the UN report on the Hariri assassination, which might implicate Damascus in the attack.

Cairo has offered to act as mediator to defuse tensions between Washington and Damascus, according to Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit. ‘There is an active and continuous Egyptian effort to defuse the tensions in the Syrian-American situation and prevent its explosion,’ Gheit said on 18 October. ‘We do not want another Iraq, and we do not want another quagmire.’