By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009 10:28 PM
President Obama has decided to return a U.S. ambassador to Syria after an absence of more than four years, marking a significant step toward engaging an influential Arab nation long at odds with the United States.
The acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, informed Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, tonight of Obama's intention, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision had yet to be made public.
By returning a senior U.S. envoy to Damascus, the Syrian capital, the Obama administration is seeking to carve out a far larger role for the United States in the region as the president works to rehabilitate U.S. relations with the Islamic world and the Arab Middle East.
The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador in February 2005 to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Syrian intelligence officials are suspected of being behind the bombing in Beirut that killed him, a claim Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long rejected.
The loss of U.S. diplomatic leverage in the region -- because of opposition among many Arabs to the Iraq war and a perceived U.S. favoritism toward Israel -- has left a vacuum in recent years filled in large part by Iran. The decision to return the ambassador to Syria, senior administration officials said, represents the restoration of a sustained U.S. diplomatic presence in a secular Arab country central to many U.S. interests in the region.
"It did not make any sense to us not to be able to speak with an authoritative voice in Damascus," the senior administration official said. "It was our assessment that total disengagement has not served our interests."
The decision follows a series of recent visits to Syria by high-level U.S. military and diplomatic delegations, including a trip there this month by Obama's Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell.
Syria's ruling clique is Alawite, a sect of Shiite Islam, and has close relations with the Shiite leadership of an Iranian government now confronting the biggest challenge to its authority in three decades. Iran and Syria support the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
In addition, Syria has served as a transit point for foreign fighters traveling to Iraq. The Bush administration frequently called on the government to stop the flow across its long border, something it did occasionally to fit its strategic interests. The issue was recently raised by a visiting Pentagon and Central Command delegation.
Finally, Assad is central to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since the 1967 Middle East war, territory Assad has demanded in return for peace with the Jewish state. Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- armed Palestinian movements that do not recognize Israel's right to exist -- maintain political offices in Damascus.
"We're determined to engage in a comprehensive way in the region," the official said. "This is an important step we are taking as part of that strategy."
The official said the administration tonight also informed the ambassadors of other countries in the region, including Israel.