WASHINGTON (CNN) – U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell will spend two days in Syria this weekend as part of the Obama administration's effort to jump-start comprehensive peace efforts in the region, the State Department said
Mitchell is already in Israel and plans to visit Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon before heading to Damascus, State
Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters. Mitchell's visit is a follow-up to President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world last week in Cairo, Egypt, and part of his policy to pursue a "broad-based, comprehensive peace dealing with all the regional players."
"This is a very high priority," Kelly said.
U.S.-Syrian ties have been strained in recent years over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the ongoing political
struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon. The United States has not had an ambassador in Damascus since 2005.
But Mitchell's visit is part of a series of actions that could pave the way for dramatically improved relations between the two countries. The Obama administration also believes engaging the Syrian regime will weaken Syria's strategic alliance with Iran.
The State Department said last week that Mitchell's trip will be followed by other U.S. missions - including a delegation of U.S. military commanders who will discuss joint efforts to combat the Iraqi insurgency, officials said.
The visits were sealed in a telephone call last week between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem, the officials said.
Jeffrey Feltman - an assistant secretary of state who is the department's top official on the Middle East - and National Security Council
official Daniel Shapiro traveled to Damascus twice in recent months in an effort to improve ties with Syria.
The talks, which have been the start of more regular contacts between Washington and Damascus through normal diplomatic channels, focused in part on getting Syria to seal its border with Iraq. Washington has criticized Damascus for turning a blind eye to foreign fighters traveling through the country into Iraq.
The United States also wants Syrian support in achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement, and it appears willing to nurture indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel that began last year over the disputed Golan Heights. Those talks were suspended after Israel's three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip that ended in mid-January.
Damascus wants the United States to become involved if the talks resume. And Washington is interested in getting Damascus to use its influence with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which Syria views as a legitimate resistance movement and whose leaders take refuge in Syria.
In another sign of reconciliation, officials have said the United States is considering reappointing an ambassador to Syria. A charge d'affaires has been the highest-level American diplomat in Damascus since 2005. The United States also is interested in building a new embassy in Damascus, and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell recently traveled to Syria to examine the security situation there.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Syria four years ago in protest at the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Washington accuses Syria of being behind the killing of the popular statesman in a massive bombing that also left 22 others dead.
Syria denies it, but an ongoing United Nations investigation has found indications of Syrian involvement.