The White House says it is inappropriate for members of Congress to meet privately with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  VOA White House correspondent Scott Stearns reports, one senator visited Damascus earlier this week, and several others are planning visits to the Syrian capital.

White House spokesman Tony Snow criticized Florida Senator Bill Nelson for meeting with President Assad Wednesday, saying it is neither helpful nor appropriate.

"The point is that, even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region," said Mr. Snow.  "The Syrians have been adventurous and meddlesome in Iraq, and in Lebanon, and working against the causes of democracy in both of those countries."

Nelson is from the opposition Democratic Party, and was last month re-elected to another six-year term. Following his meeting, he told reporters that he saw what he calls "a crack in the door" for American cooperation with Syria on Iraq.

More direct coordination with Iran and Syria over Iraq is one of the recommendations of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is also urging the president to withdraw most combat troops by early 2008.

That group's recommendations are among the opinions President Bush is considering before announcing what he says will be a new way forward in Iraq early next year.

White House spokesman Snow says, there will be no direct talks with Iran until it stops enriching uranium, and no direct talks with Syria until it stops undermining democracy in Lebanon.

He says the government in Damascus should have no doubt that Washington's position is the same as it has always been, regardless of the Florida senator's visit.

"They need to stop supporting terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere," he added.  "They need to stop serving as headquarters for terrorist organizations. And they need to demonstrate good will. A lot of times a member of Congress may think, well, I'm going to go there, and I'm going to tell them. I'm going to tell them exactly the same thing.  I'm going to take a tough line. You can take a tough line all you want, but the Syrians have already won a PR victory."

Snow says the White House has discouraged members of Congress from visiting Syria, and spoke with Nelson about the visit before he left.

Three other senators, including a member of the president's own Republican Party, are also planning visits to Damascus.

President Assad told an Italian newspaper that Washington should hold talks with his country and Iran on stabilizing the Middle East.