Top U.S. Envoy Due in Syria as Bilateral Ties Blossom

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.
Senior American diplomat William Burns arrives in Damascus Wednesday for a one-day visit with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, foreshadowing the expected announcement that Washington is to re-appoint an ambassador to the crucial Middle East nation after a five year disruption in political ties.

State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said Burns' visit to Syria was not specifically related to the appointment of an ambassador, but "has to do with what a return of the ambassador to Syria represents; which is, you know, further steps in terms of our bilateral relations."

"The decision reflects our growing interest in working constructively with Syria and the leaders of that country," Crowley said.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus has been without an ambassador since February 2005, when the Bush administration recalled Margaret Scobey in response to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria's foes in Lebanon accused Damascus of being behind the bombing, allegations Syria has repeatedly denied.

The return of an American ambassador is a gesture welcomed by Syria as recognition Washington's increasing acceptance that the nation could potentially help ease violence in Iraq, stabilize Lebanon and solve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Burns (click here for a State Department bio), a former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan (pictured above) who speaks fluent Arabic, will discuss with Assad a range of regional issues, according to Crowley, including how Syria views "the situation with respect to Middle East peace."

Syria insists that Israel must agree to withdrawal from the disputed Golan Heights before any peace negotiations between the two countries can be renewed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has vehemently rejected the notion of a withdrawal from the territory seized by the Jewish state during a week-long war in 1967.

Since taking the oath, President Obama has cautiously sought to improve ties with Syria, and U.S. lawmakers have made a flurry of visits to Damascus. Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, a leading figure in Syrian foreign policy, also visited Washington.

Damascus has accepted Washington's nominee for the first U.S. Ambassador to Syria in five years. Syrian and U.S. officials have refused to confirm that Robert Stephen Ford, who currently serves as Deputy Ambassador to Iraq and is recognized as an expert on the Arab world, is the nominee.

Ford's nomination has been widely reported, and confirmed to CBS News by diplomatic officials speaking off the record. However, according to protocol, the White House would have to announce his appointment officially only after it is submitted to the U.S. Senate for approval.

Burns, an architect of the 2003 deal between the U.S. and Libya that helped bring some degree of credibility back to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was also set to have separate talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Mouallem.

The U.S. envoy arrives in Damascus after visiting Beirut where held talks with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

He will continue his regional trip in Turkey, and will then head to Azerbaijan for meetings on Feb. 19 with President Ilham Aliyev and other officials.
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