(photo credit: Courtesy)
A senior US official has voiced rare criticism of close ally Britain in questioning its decision to talk to elements of Hizbullah, in a move that suggested the limits of America's own regional engagement efforts.
The official said late Thursday that he would like British officials, who recently indicated they would speak with the political wing of Hizbullah that sits in the Lebanese cabinet, "to explain the difference between the political, military and social wings of Hizbullah, because we don't see the difference between the integrated leadership that they see."
They were the strongest US comments yet on the subject, and come at a time when American officials have begun to reach out to Middle Eastern players held at arm's length by the Bush administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned that Iran was set to be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan planned for later in the month, and acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council senior adviser Daniel Shapiro just returned from a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus.
Yet in addition to signaling that there was likely to be no US change on policy toward Hizbullah, the senior official said that while the face-to-face nature of the Damascus meeting - the highest-level visit there for four years - represented a change in approach, there wasn't "a whole lot of substance that was new" on either side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"It's a little bit premature to declare victory," he said, adding that "the machinery of the bilateral relationship is sort of creaking back into gear."
Though US President Barack Obama has been highlighting his interest in engagement as a means of changing gears in troubled US relationships with Middle Eastern leaders, the senior official downplayed the recent overtures as too recent and limited to represent a new reality.
While the next steps have yet to be determined, as the US continues its review of policy toward both Iran and Syria, the administration official said that for now, no decision has been made about returning a US ambassador to Damascus.
Similarly, no decision had been taken about any American participation in Israeli-Syrian peace talks, should they resume after the next Israeli coalition is determined.
The official described the Moallem meeting as "comprehensive, constructive and positive," and said that overall, "the atmosphere was good," though there were moments of tension because of the sensitive subjects addressed, including the "difficult" issue of Hizbullah.
Hamas, whose leader Khaled Mashaal is headquartered in Damascus, was another major subject of the discussions, and the official noted the US would be watching Syria's attitude toward Hamas closely for signs of a serious interest in change.
"The Syrians are saying that the Hamas elements in Damascus are subject to constructive influence from the Syrians themselves, and we're suggesting that they use that constructive influence," the official said, "The Syrians very much want us to focus on the Israel-Syria track of the peace process, and the president has made it clear that he want to focus on a comprehensive" process that goes beyond a bilateral track. In other words, the US doesn't want to emphasize Israel-Syrian talks at the "expense" of other regional challenges, such as an independent Lebanon.
The Obama administration official also acknowledged that meetings like that held by Feltman and Shapiro don't necessarily come without cost.
"We're sensitive to the fact that people can exploit these meetings in various ways," he said.