ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – Syria left a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference without a specific promise from Israel to restart stalled talks but with signs the Bush administration is softening its diplomatic hard line against an Arab state that has played a role in past peace efforts.

Syrian delegates received warm handshakes and words of thanks from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose administration has largely shunned Syria since early 2005.

At the end of Tuesday’s speeches and meetings focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice walked over to the Syrian delegates, said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.

“She shook hands with us and thanked us for participating,” Moustapha told The Associated Press in a telephone interview yesterday. “She also asked us to pass our greetings to Foreign Minister Waleed al-Moallem.”

Syria sent a deputy foreign minister instead of al-Moallem. Syria’s move was widely viewed as a subtle snub to the U.S. hosts, but U.S. officials said they took no offense.

Rice’s handshake may have been a small gesture. But coming on top of the U.S. invitation to Syria to attend the one-day session and Syria’s willingness to attend, it could indicate a slight thaw in the diplomatic chill between Washington and Damascus.

After repeatedly saying there was no point in talking to Syria, Rice has met twice this year with al-Moallem. She has described the meetings as businesslike and focused largely on U.S. demands that Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders to fight in Iraq, where they threaten U.S. forces.

Afterward, the U.S. made a point of saying that Rice raised U.S. complaints about alleged Syrian meddling in Lebanon and Syria made a point of saying it asked Rice to return an American ambassador to Damascus.

U.S.-Syrian relations frosted over following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an attack which many blamed on Damascus. The U.S. yanked its ambassador and clamped a diplomatic boycott on Syria.

“The fact that they did come to the conference, the fact that they did participate in such a way that added to the conversation, indicates to me that they understand that there is another pathway that they can choose to take,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.

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