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POLITICS: U.S. to Name Ambassador to Damascus after Four Years

Katie Mattern and Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Jun 24 2009 (IPS) - After informing the Syrian embassy in Washington on Tuesday night, the U.S. State Department announced on Wednesday that President Barack Obama will be sending an ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005.

The move follows the renewal of sanctions on Syria in May, which many thought were an obstacle to new ties to Damascus as part of the bold regional engagement Obama had promised during the presidential campaigns.

Officials informed the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, and the Foreign Ministry in Damascus on Tuesday night, the State Department confirmed on Wednesday.

Ahmed Salkini, a spokesperson for the Syrian embassy in Washington, told IPS that they were unofficially informed of the decision but had yet to receive an official or written communiqué.

“[W]e’re prepared to move forward with Syria to advance our interests through direct and continuing dialogue,” said State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly at a briefing Wednesday. “[W]e continue to have concerns about Syria’s role in this region. And we think one way to address those concerns is to have an ambassador in Damascus.”

“[T]his is part of a natural evolution of our reengagement with Syria,” he added.

“It’s in our interests to have an ambassador in Syria,” a senior administration official told CNN. “We have been having more and more discussions, and we need to have someone there to engage.”

The move is seen as part of Obama’s plan to improve relations with the Middle East in general and Syria, in particular, which the U.S. hopes to draw away from its alliance with Iran.

Syria is often thought as a key player in regional peace. Syria maintains ties with Iran and plays a role in the Palestinian armed resistance.

“Mitchell came away with his magical word that Syria plays an ‘integral’ role in regional peace, and that was very important for Syria to hear,” said Oklahoma University professor Joshua Landis, who authors the widely-read Syria Comment blog and returned from a trip to Syria on Tuesday.

“[T]his decision reflects the administration’s recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region,” Kelly said at Wednesday press briefing. “And of course, we hope that they will continue to play such a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region.”

But prospects for Israeli-Syrian peace remain dim as long as right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to compromise on giving up the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967’s Six Day War, though Netanyahu said he is willing to talk in other areas.

“Everyone wants to show that they’re willing to talk,” said Landis. “The ultimate goal for Syria is getting out from under these sanctions that they’ve been under for 30 years now. That means making a deal with Israel because a lot of these sanctions are connected to Syria’s enmity with Israel.”

Syria diplomacy had been moving slowly, and some commentators suspected that the renewed sanctions in May and the little attention paid to Syria recently might have indicated that the U.S. was less determined to renew ties.

“Everything was on hold for the Lebanese elections which turned out very well for the U.S.,” Landis told IPS. An anti-Syrian coalition won the election in Lebanon, holding onto a delicate majority.

Lebanon had been caught in a “tug of war” between Syria and U.S., Landis said. “Now the status quo has been reaffirmed and I think that means that this tug of war can be put to rest. That means that Syria and the U.S. can move on and deal with other situations,” including Palestinian issues and the situation in Iraq, he said.

U.S. ambassador to Syria Margaret Scobey was withdrawn from Damascus by former President George W. Bush in 2005 after the assassination of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Washington accused Syria of playing a role in the killing, which Syria staunchly denies. A U.N. investigation into the attack that killed Hariri and 22 others is ongoing.

George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, visited Syria two weeks ago and met with President Bashar al-Assad. Mitchell was the highest level official to visit Damascus in four years.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former Bush ambassador to Lebanon, and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro have also made two visits to Syria.

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell was also in the region previous to Mitchell’s trip to assess the security situation in Damascus. The U.S. has expressed interest in building a new embassy there, though Kelley denied on Wednesday that any decisions had been made.

“It’s a reflection of Syria being a pivotal country in terms of achieving a comprehensive peace in the region,” one senior official told the New York Times. “There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that, it helps to have a fully staffed embassy.”

“He [Obama] is doing the right thing,” Landis wrote. “Indeed, this should have been done long ago… The Bush administration’s policy of conquering Iraq while telling its neighbours that they were next in line for regime-change was bad. Syria and Iran had little choice but to fan the flames of the Iraq insurgency in the hopes of sinking Washington’s regional plans which were inimical to their interests.”

Mitchell called his discussions with President al-Assad “serious and productive” and discussed Obama’s plan for regional peace laid out in his Cairo speech earlier this month. According to CNN’s report, Mitchell also stressed the importance of peace between Syria and Israel, and Lebanon and Israel.

The U.S. is also said to be interested in using Syria’s influence with Hamas, whose senior political leadership, including the head of the organisation’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, resides in Damascus.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) was also recently in the region, including Damascus, meeting with Hamas officials. While in Syria, he also met with Assad. IPS reported that Carter briefed Mitchell on his findings.

Earlier this year, Moustapha said that there had been indications that the U.S. would be willing to engage Syria even if the heads of these groups, which are viewed as terrorist groups by the U.S., were not kicked out of Damascus.

Syria itself is listed as a state sponsor of terror, and Kelly said he was unaware of any discussions about removing the country from that list.

Bush had criticised Syria for allowing terrorists to move freely into Iraq. These terrorists had been accused of contributing to the insurgency within Iraq.

Officials have said that Syria has promised to try to stem the flow of these foreigners into Iraq. A U.S. military contingent had also visited the country to discuss this issue.

“I know that they have played a positive role in addressing some of our very real concerns about foreign fighters crossing from Syria [into Iraq],” Kelly said at the State Department.

The U.S. has yet to pick a new ambassador for Syria. The appointee would have to be approved by both the U.S. Senate and the Syrian government.

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