By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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 U.S. ambassador, Imad Mustafa, Tuesday night 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 Obama administration is seeking to carve out a far larger U.S. role 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 has left a vacuum filled in large part by Iran. Returning the ambassador to Syria, senior administration officials said, represents the restoration of a sustained diplomatic presence in a secular Arab country central to many U.S. interests in the region.
"It was our assessment that total disengagement has not served our interests," the senior official said.
Syria's ruling clique has close relations with Iran's leadership. Both nations support the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group. In addition, Syria has been a transit point for fighters traveling to Iraq.
And Assad is central to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel occupies the Syrian Golan Heights, territory Assad has demanded in return for peace with Israel.