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U.S. to send envoys to Syria

Two officials will hold preliminary talks with Damascus in the coming days, the latest signal that the Obama administration intends to engage the longtime U.S. rival.

March 04, 2009|Paul Richter

JERUSALEM — Two U.S. officials are being dispatched to Syria for exploratory talks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday, in a new signal of the Obama administration's determination to reach out to longtime adversaries.

Clinton, in Jerusalem for her first talks with Israeli officials, described the upcoming meetings with the Syrian government as "preliminary conversations" intended to examine whether Damascus is serious about a new relationship with the United States.

She told reporters in a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that though the outcome is uncertain, "it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin" the talks.

The U.S. officials are Jeffrey Feltman, acting U.S. secretary of State for the Middle East who previously served as the ambassador to Lebanon; and Daniel Shapiro, ranking official for the Middle East at the National Security Council, who was a Mideast advisor to the Obama presidential campaign.

The two men will leave this weekend for meetings expected to last a few days. They're not expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, since the talks are preliminary.

President Obama, who campaigned on a promise of outreach to long-standing foes, also plans an overture to Iran, and Clinton has appointed a high-level envoy to advise her on U.S. policy toward Tehran.

Administration officials see the possibility of a new relationship with Damascus as part of a strategic realignment in the region. A shift could dilute Syria's relationship with Iran, weaken the Syrian-supported Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups, and make it easier for Israel to reach a peace settlement with Palestinians, they believe.

Administration officials have sent positive signals to Damascus in their first weeks in office. These include a move to ease export controls and a meeting in Washington between Feltman and Syria's ambassador to the U.S.

At an international conference in Egypt on Monday, Clinton said U.S. officials were interested in "comprehensive" Mideast talks, a signal that the Syrians should be involved.

A thaw between Washington and Damascus would reverse the policy of the Bush administration, which withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which pro-Syrian officials were blamed.

But an opening to Syria also poses risks for the United States. In Lebanon, moderate political groups have expressed concern that their interests could be sacrificed by the U.S. effort. For example, they fear the possibility of U.S. compromise on the international tribunal investigating the killing of Hariri, which could ease pressure on Damascus to come clean about the slaying.

The Obama administration has sought to reassure Lebanon by supporting its sovereignty and by adding $6 million in support for the tribunal.

Israel last year began indirect talks with Syria through Turkish mediators, hoping they would lead to negotiations on a peace treaty. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in December that Syria "wants to reconnect with the West."

Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to form a new government, explored the option of a new relationship with Syria when he was premier in the late 1990s. However, before the most recent elections, Netanyahu declared his opposition to moves that would be at the heart of any deal, such as giving up the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Some experts doubt that Syria would ultimately agree to a deal with the United States.

David Schenker, a former Pentagon Mideast expert now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that ties to the U.S. would mean ending a 30-year bond with Iran that has been a pillar of economic and military support for the Assad government.

Clinton exchanged greetings with Syria's foreign minister, Walid Mualem, on the sidelines of the international conference Monday. Clinton's comments Tuesday came on a day when she met with a succession of Israeli officials, including Livni, Netanyahu, Olmert and President Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu urged Clinton to set a time limit on Washington's promised diplomatic overture to Iran so the Iranians are not given more time to advance their nuclear program. Iranian officials say they are working to develop civilian energy, but U.S. and Israeli officials, among others, contend that the effort is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

Zalman Shoval, foreign affairs chief of Netanyahu's Likud party and a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was in the Jerusalem meeting with Clinton and Netanyahu. He said most of the session was spent discussing Iran, Hamas and the Gaza Strip, which the militant group controls, and the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, run by Hamas' rival, Fatah.

Syria came up, but "not in a significant way," Shoval said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.

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