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Clinton Shakes Syria's Hand

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands with her Syrian counterpart Monday as the two attended a conference in Egypt on rebuilding the Gaza Strip.

The simple handshake before lunch was the highest-level contact between the two countries in years.

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
It was clear that the gesture had been arrangement, as Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (seen at left in a file photo) chose the first table in the banquet hall in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheik. He sat there and waited. Clinton seemed to head straight over to shake hands with him.

Muallem described his meeting with Clinton to CBS News as "short, but very pleasant," and that he was "happy it happened." He said he was "hoping this Administration would apply their words into deeds on the ground."

The pair of senior diplomats stood for a couple of minutes as Clinton introduced Muallem to her team, including George Mitchell, the new U.S. Mideast envoy — who excluded Damascus from his first trip to the region a couple weeks ago.

The handshake came after weeks of slowly-building diplomacy between the two nations — sparked by the change of power in Washington.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.

In past weeks, several U.S. congressional delegations (most recently, one led by Sen. John Kerry) have visited Syria to try and find a path to renewed relations.

Many observers and analysts of the Middle East peace process (not to Mention Syrian leaders) have stressed the role Syria could play in reconciling Palestinian factions and facilitating negotiations with Israel.

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