BEIRUT AND PARIS — The Obama administration began the delicate task of laying the groundwork for possible talks with long-shunned Syrian leaders, dispatching two senior U.S. diplomats to meet top officials in Damascus on Saturday.
The step, the highest-level visit by U.S. officials to the Syrian capital in more than four years, was among the first clear manifestations of President Obama's new approach to the Middle East.
Unlike his predecessor, Obama has vowed to engage in talks with rivals Syria and Iran in an effort to advance U.S. goals in the Middle East, which include redirecting Iran's nuclear program from potential military uses and providing security for Israel.
The Bush administration pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Damascus in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria, which is blamed by many in the region for the attack, views its smaller neighbor Lebanon as part of its strategic sphere of influence.
Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, called discussions with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem "very constructive" but disclosed no details. The official Syrian news agency said the two sides discussed ways to build ties and exchanged views on the Middle East.
"This is the first real administrative visit from high-ranking officials," said Joseph Bahout, a political scientist specializing in Syrian and Lebanese affairs at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
He and others predicted that the visit would be followed in coming months by the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Washington and Damascus.
American policymakers continue to describe the Middle East in starkly black-and-white terms, placing the United States, Israel and the so-called moderate Arab states on one side and Iran, Syria and their allies Hamas and Hezbollah on the other.
U.S. officials say they hope to offer incentives to Syria to coax it away from Iran's strategic orbit and get Damascus to make peace with Israel. In return for peace, Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic highland on its southwestern border captured by Israel in 1967.
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro visited Damascus after stopping in Beirut, part of an effort to allay long-standing fears that Washington might sacrifice Lebanon's sovereignty in favor of rapprochement with Syria.
"The U.S. is dangling the carrot instead of only wagging the stick," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of international relations at American University of Beirut. "They want to test how much Syria is willing to give."
Rafei is a special correspondent.