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U.S. In Key Talks With Syria

This story was written by George Baghdadi, of CBS News


Two senior U.S. envoys arrived in Damascus on Saturday and headed straight for immediate talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem — discussions expected to produce the first indications of whether the end of Washington's four-year diplomatic embargo would encourage Syria to help reshape the political landscape of the Middle East.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, a senior staffer on the National Security Council who also served as one of President Obama's top Mideast advisers during his presidential campaign, came in from Beirut, where they had assured Lebanese officials that Washington's efforts to repair relations with that country's long-dominant neighbor, Syria, do not pose a threat.

The outcome of their meetings with Syrian officials, including answers to the many questions they have, is expected to help determine whether Mr. Obama will keep up his dialogue policy with this Mediterranean country.

The main issues troubling Washington include Damascus' strong alliance with Tehran, its alleged support of terrorism — particularly hosting Palestinian military groups and allowing foreign fighters into Iraq, and interference in neighboring Lebanon.

The last senior U.S. official to visit Damascus was Richard Armitage, then a deputy assistant secretary of state, in January 2005.

Damascus has been the center of a flurry of international diplomatic activity. But Saturday's visit made really the headlines. Sources said Syrian President Basher Al-Assad was expected to meet with the U.S. officials before they travel for Lebanon later in the day.

At a Gaza donors' conference in Egypt this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands with Mualem and Feltman. She met the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, last month.

Two weeks ago, three U.S. congressional delegations, including one led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.), had separate talks with Assad in what appears to indicate a break with the Bush administration's policy of shunning Damascus, discouraging Palestinian reconciliation efforts, and distancing the US from the peace process.

The outreach comes on the heels of the Obama administration giving a rare authorization for the U.S. to sell Damascus parts to repair two aging Boeing 747s, despite Washington's trade sanctions, in addition to allowing the transfer of funds from the U.S. to a Syrian charity.

U.S.-Syrian relations grew tense after Damascus staunchly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq. Relations soured further when the Bush administration pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Damascus denied involvement in Hariri's death but, in the uproar that followed, was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence.

Diplomats told CBS News on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, they doubt Syria would give up the cards it has in the wake of a mere U.S. outreach.

"The Syrians would need also to hear, after test-the-water period with the new administration, concrete offers to begin weighing a compromise," one Damascus-based Western diplomat said.

Assad seemed upbeat and confident in recent interviews that his country was steadily taking the last steps in from cold and toward saying "goodbye isolation" for good, hoping Washington's good graces would help Damascus in boosting a still weak economy, and mediate in direct peace talks with Israel, talks in which Syria would seek the return the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Syria-Israel talks collapsed in 2000. More recently, the two held indirect, Turkish-mediated talks, which were inconclusive. They broke off after Tel Aviv's 22-day way on Gaza.

"Damascus and Washington need first to build up some trust before serious talks begin, such as cooperating in Iraq or sharing intelligence on Islamic radicals," the diplomat said.
By George Baghdadi

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