U.S., Syria Discuss Iraq Border Control

(CBS/AP)
A senior delegation of U.S. military commanders has ended talks with Syrian officials on the best ways to curb the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq with no clue yet how much progress they've made.

State Department officials in Damascus told CBS News that Major Gen. Michael Moeller of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) led the delegation that followed up on a previous round of talks held in June.

"Talks would focus on continuing our dialogue in more details concerning opportunities for cooperation on regional security matters," the official said with no further elaboration.

Syria's state-run media did not even mentioned the arrival of the U.S. delegation to Damascus early Wednesday.

The talks were agreed to after lengthy negotiations last month between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the Obama administration's Middle East envoy George Mitchell (pictured together below, left).

In June, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said there has been a "significant decrease" in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq in the past few months, including from Syria.

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
The Pentagon's efforts overlap with a string of bombings in northern Iraq and Baghdad that have killed at least 112 people in the last several days - the worst spate of violence since U.S. troops handed over security in urban areas to Iraqi security forces on June 30.

The attacks have raised fears that insurgent groups are embarking on a sustained attempt to kindle ethnic and sectarian warfare. These include the rift between Arab and Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq and the continued disenfranchisement felt by many Sunni Arabs who remain wary of the Shiite-led central government.

An official foreign ministry statement described the series of attacks as "criminal operations ... perpetrated by terrorists" and said Syria calls for Iraqi people "to strive to achieve national reconciliation and bolster Iraq's unity."

Damascus vocally opposed the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite its long-running disputes with Saddam Hussein. The United States has accused Damascus of letting insurgents use Syrian territory to cross over into Iraq.

Syria rejects accusations that it is meddling in Iraq, suggesting that cutting down al-Qaida and stabilizing Iraq were both in Syria's national interest.

One diplomat told CBS News on condition of anonymity that President Obama's announcement of a clear timetable for withdrawal may provide Damascus with new incentives to cooperate more on Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was expected to travel to Syria next week for talks on security, apparently annoyed that the United States was sending its own delegation to discuss the issue, according to the diplomat.

Since being sworn in as U.S. president, Mr. Obama has cautiously sought to improve ties with Syria. Congressional visitors have made a flurry of trips to Damascus and the U.S. has decided to return an ambassador to Damascus after four years.

The new round of talks also dealt with prospects for Mideast peacemaking. The U.S. delegation, made up mostly of military officials, included Frederic Hof, an assistant to Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader who is the spearheading U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Mideast.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem discussed "the developments in the region in relation to US efforts and bilateral relations" with Hoff Thursday, according to an official statement, which gave no further details.

The Obama administration is eager to get indirect Syria-Israel talks back on track after they were suspended following Israel's three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip that ended in mid-January.

Hoff, who advises Mitchell on Syria and Lebanon, authored an academic proposal earlier this year for solving the dispute over the Golan Heights by turning much of the strategic plateau into a nature reserve that would be accessible to both Israelis and Syrians.

Turkey brokered four rounds of indirect talks between the two foes last year - the first such contacts since previous peace negotiations were broken off in 2000 over the fate of the Israeli-occupied land in the Golan Heights, along Syria's border.

But Syria froze communication at the beginning of the year, when Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip, controlled since June 2007 by the Islamic militant movement Hamas. Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, lives in Damascus.
  • George Baghdadi

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