By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
JERUSALEM, March 3 -- The United States is moving quickly to revive relations with Syria, sending two senior officials to Damascus this weekend to explore how the two countries can move beyond years of bitterness over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Syria's links to terrorist groups.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the dispatch of State Department and White House envoys during a visit to Israel, where an incoming government is hostile to the idea of a Palestinian state but may show more interest in a peace agreement with Syria.
"There has to be some perceived benefit of doing so for the United States and our allies and our shared values," Clinton said Tuesday at a news conference after talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "But I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations."
A rapprochement between the United States and Syria has the potential to reshape the Middle East if it results in Syria curtailing its ties to Iran and anti-Israeli militant groups in exchange for return of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has indicated he wants to end Syria's diplomatic isolation, holding indirect talks with Israel and welcoming French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Damascus.
The U.S. emissaries will be Jeffrey D. Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, and Dan Shapiro, the senior official for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff. They have been traveling with Clinton in the Middle East and will arrive in Damascus this weekend.
Officials traveling with Clinton declined to provide details on what the envoys hoped to accomplish, except to say it was a sign of President Obama's desire to engage with other countries. Feltman held a two-hour meeting Thursday at the State Department with the Syrian ambassador to the United States.
Previewing one area of potential conflict with the incoming Israeli government, Clinton said she believed "the inevitability of working toward a two state-solution is inescapable" and the administration "will be vigorously engaged" in trying to create a Palestinian state. Prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, who is attempting to form a government, has expressed deep skepticism about the concept, preferring to focus on building up the Palestinian economy.
The United States has not had an ambassador in Syria for four years, since the Bush administration withdrew Margaret Scoby after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria. Syrian officials denied any role in the killing.
Syria had long regarded Lebanon as a vassal, but Lebanese outrage over Hariri's killing prompted a popular movement known as the "Cedar Revolution" that led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. U.N. investigators have implicated Syrian officials in the Hariri attack.
The Bush administration also faulted Syria for allowing fighters to cross its border into Iraq, and for hosting exiled leaders of Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization.
Relations between the two countries remained largely frozen, though then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held two inconclusive meetings with her Syrian counterpart in 2007 and 2008.
Feltman brings an unusual history to the diplomatic mission. As ambassador to Lebanon during the 2005 Cedar Revolution, his efforts to foster a government independent of Syrian influence so angered the Syrian government that at one point, State Department security officials were concerned that Damascus had ordered his assassination. Shortly before he returned to Washington, in January 2008, an embassy convoy was attacked in a car bombing that killed three Lebanese civilians and injured dozens of people; Feltman was traveling in another convoy and was not injured.
In Damascus, Clinton's announcement was greeted as tangible evidence that Syrian-U.S. relations will improve.
"It is obvious that this administration realizes that the deterioration of the relations between Syria and the U.S. was caused by the lack of dialogue, and it also realizes what such a dialogue could mean in terms of the stability and peace of the region," said Elias Murad, editor in chief of al-Baath newspaper.
"The authorities here are relaxed. They think Obama has sent a number of positive and eager messages," said Thabet Salem, another Syrian journalist, citing the appointment as Mideast special envoy of former senator George J. Mitchell, whose previous work with Israelis and Palestinians has been seen by Arabs as even-handed. "The region is also changing -- if there is no American occupation in Iraq, much of the tension will also go away."
Last year, Israel held indirect talks with Syria, brokered by Turkey, in an effort to see if a peace agreement could be reached. Syria is seeking the return of the Golan Heights, while Israel wants Syria to end its support of militant groups. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, Syria and Israel nearly reached a peace deal, but they could not agree on the last 50 meters, or about 160 feet, of land.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, expressed some doubt about whether pursuing the Syrian track would bear fruit. He noted that the Turkish-sponsored talks were only to determine the conditions for beginning actual peace talks, and that Syrian officials refused to meet directly with Israeli envoys.
"It was very telling," Palmor said, saying Syria's stance in the past year was similar to the stance of militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. "It is very important for them to never deal directly with Israel."
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.