April 30th, 2009
05:31 PM ET
13 years ago

US to hold new talks with Syria

WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Obama administration is sending two senior US envoys to Syria next week, another sign of warming ties between the two countries, according to US and Syrian officials briefed on the talks.

Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman, the top State Department official on the Middle East, and National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro will be will be making their second trip to Damascus in less than two months as the United States seeks to upgrade relations with Damascus.

Since his last trip to Damascus in March, Feltman and Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador in Washington, have held several meetings aimed at nailing down areas of cooperation. The meetings have suggested the start of more regular contacts between Washington and Damascus through normal diplomatic channels since President Obama took office.

Syrian officials said the meetings in Damascus and Washington have helped the two sides develop common strategies which they now hope to put into action.

US officials briefed on the visit said the talks will focus in part on convincing Syria to seal its border with Iraq. Washington has criticized Damascus for turning a blind eye to foreign fighters traveling through Syria into Iraq.

In an interview, Ambassador Moustapha said his country was willing to help the United States stabilize Iraq.

"We are committed to helping Iraq became more stable, more secure and more prosperous," he said. "We all want a peaceful Iraq."

Moustapha said he believed the talks would be broadened to discuss all of the bilateral issues between the two countries, but that Syria was most concerned about US leadership in Mideast peacemaking.

"How is the United States of America going to address the peace process, and how can we achieve peace despite the Israeli position," he said. "We believe if this issue is addressed, then all other issues will be solved."

The United States also wants Syrian support in achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and appears willing to nurture indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, which began last year, over the disputed Golan Heights. The United States has also been increasingly interested in getting Damascus to use its influence with Hamas, which Syria views as a legitimate resistance movement and whose leaders take refuge in Syria.

Moustapha said Syria is willing to foster a dialogue between the United States and Hamas, and "cannot imagine making peace" unless the two sides begin talking.

"The United States cannot make peace without including the major players in the region," he said. "If they want our help, we are willing. But if not, it will become a 'mission impossible.'"

The Obama administration believes engaging the Syrian regime will weaken's that country's strategic alliance with Iran. Moustapha dismissed the idea, and said Syria is willing to be a "channel or bridge" between Washington and Tehran.

"Eventually, the United States will need to sit face to face with Iran," he said

In another sign of reconciliation, senior administration officials said the United States is close to re-appointing an ambassador to Syria. A U.S. charge d'affaires is currently the highest level American diplomat in Damascus. Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell recently traveled to Syria to examine the security situation there. The United States is also looking to build a new embassy in Damascus.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Syria four years ago, in protest of suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanon's former 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. Damascus denies the charge, but an ongoing United Nations investigation has found indications of Syrian involvement.

Filed under: President Obama
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