It will be George Mitchell's second visit to Syria since mid-June, as President Obama seeks to re-engage Damascus — a key regional player — to try and breathe new life into the faltering peace process. Mitchell has made five previous visits to the region.
Syria remains a vital player in the Middle East. Damascus wields significant influence over events in Lebanon; is a close ally of Iran (whose disputed nuclear program is a matter of international concern); shares a crucial border with Iraq; and has a direct relationship with Palestinian extremist groups.
Former President George W. Bush put relations with Syria on hold in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Obama administration decided to return an ambassador to Damascus as a reward for Syria's help in the region and perceived attitude change, including the exchange of diplomatic representation with neighboring Lebanon and a move to boost security along its border with Iraq.
Following his talks in London with his British counterpart David Miliband on Friday, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said
that Mitchell's meetings in Damascus would represent "the first step of dialogue," telling reporters his country would lobby America's top official on the issue of the Golan Heights — a strategic plateau seized by Israel in 1967 and which Syria wants back.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed Friday in a press conference that the re-engagement policy Washington started with Syria is considered a fruitful engagement that "we intend to pursue."
She said that there remains to be "hard work that has to be done in working through many of the issues that are of great concern to the United States, that Syria has to be willing to discuss with us and hopefully make some changes going forward. She indicated that one of the issues Mitchell would be exploring deeply during his trip to Damascus is how the Syrians would respond to renewed negotiations with the Israelis.
Mitchell's visit, which comes only a few days after a Middle East tour by Fred Hoff, his adviser on Syria and Lebanon, represents the administration's strongest push yet to bring regional foes to the negotiating table.
Hoff, who authored a proposal earlier this year to solve the dispute over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights which would see the Jewish state turn much of the strategic plateau into a nature reserve accessible to both Israelis and Syrians, has been in the Syrian capital for several days and was expected to join the official talks to start Sunday morning.
Mitchell, an architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, is also to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories this weekend, where he will discuss the recent spat between Israel and Washington over continued Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.
Syria says it sees "no partner" for peace in right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has stymied efforts by Washington to restart the peace process since he took office in March.
Turkey brokered four rounds of indirect talks between the two foes last year, the first such contacts since previous peace negotiations over the fate of the Golan Height were broken off in 2000.
Syria quit the talks when Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip, controlled since June 2007 by the Islamic militant movement Hamas. Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal lives in Damascus.
On Wednesday, in a renewed attempt by Turkey to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Assad in Damascus, telling reporters that Ankara had received requests to help revive the peace talks.
By CBS News' George Baghdadi reporting from Damascus