Syrian Envoy to See Key Official

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Syrian ambassador to the United States has been invited to meet with a top U.S. diplomat at the State Department this morning, signaling a potential thaw in relations between Damascus and Washington.

The United States has not had an ambassador in Syria since 2005, when the Bush administration withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey to protest the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister battling Syrian influence in that country. But the Obama administration has signaled that it is interested in opening the door to warmer relations, including stationing an ambassador in the country again.

"There remain key differences between our two governments, including our concerns about Syria's support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria's acquisition of nuclear and non-conventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon and worsening human rights situation," the State Department said in a statement yesterday. "This meeting is an opportunity to use dialogue to discuss these concerns."

Imad Moustapha, the ambassador, will meet with Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman. Moustapha told Syria's official al-Thawra newspaper yesterday that the meeting could "represent an overture in Syrian-American relations" and that it would cover "all major issues" in the region.

Three congressional delegations have visited Syria in recent weeks, including one headed by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry told reporters in Damascus that Syria had indicated it could be "very helpful" in creating a Palestinian unity government bringing together the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip and the secular Fatah movement that controls the West Bank.

Ahmed Salkini, an embassy spokesman, said Moustapha last visited the State Department in April when he was summoned to listen to a briefing about U.S. intelligence showing that Syria had secretly constructed a nuclear reactor based on a North Korean design. (Israel destroyed the alleged reactor in 2007.) "It was nothing productive," he said. "It was the same old policy of dictating to us."

Regarding today's meeting, Salkini said, "We have learned from past experience to keep expectations low. Hopefully we will see a new approach to the region, based on mutual respect and dialogue."

Syria's human rights record came under withering criticism in the State Department's annual human rights report, which was released yesterday. "The Syrian government continued to violate citizens' privacy rights and to impose significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association, in an atmosphere of government impunity and corruption," the report said. "Security services disrupted meetings of human rights organizations and detained activists, organizers, and other regime critics without due process."

During her tour of Asia last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came under fire from human rights groups for saying that human rights concerns should not interfere with cooperating with China on climate change and the global economic crisis.

Yesterday, when releasing the report -- which covers 2008 and was compiled largely in the Bush administration -- Clinton said that "as secretary of state, I will continue to focus my own energies on human rights, and will engage as many others as I can to join me."

"I am looking for results," she said. "I am looking for changes that will actually improve the lives of the greatest numbers of people."

The report's section on China, as in past years, was tough, saying that its human rights "remained poor and worsened in some areas."

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