Senior US diplomats set to return to Syria soon

Feltman and Shapiro will make their second trip to Damascus as Obama continues outreach to Assad.

feltman moallem damascus 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
feltman moallem damascus 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Two senior US officials are expected to return to Syria this week as the Obama administration continues its outreach efforts to the Assad regime. Though the trip hasn't been officially announced, it is widely anticipated that Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council Middle East affairs Senior Advisor Daniel Shapiro will be making their second trip to Damascus to discuss the Syria-Iraq border situation and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said he welcomes the deepening US engagement with his country during a speech here Friday, saying that two countries have common interests including stabilizing Iraq. In an address at the Middle East Institute, he praised the new Obama administration for taking a different approach in "style and content" with Syria, saying that the emerging interaction in now one of "serious dialogue based on respect." In that context, he said, the US has stopped demanding that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal be denied his safe haven in Damascus and that Syria sever ties with Iran at every encounter between the two countries. He also claimed that America had asked for his country's assistance in reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in the creation of a Palestinian national unity government. "You have influence with Hamas. Please help them with the reconciliation effort. Please bring them into the political process," he quoted American officials as saying. The State Department did not immediately respond to a question attempting to verify his assertions. Last week, the Obama administration reiterated its position that any unity government would have to adhere to international demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, but the US has been guarded about indicating whether it would like to see such a unity government emerge. Moustapha also praised America's new-found interest in achieving peace - rather than a peace process - in the region, but said such progress would be hindered by Israel's election of an "extreme right-wing government." He also blamed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel Washington lobbies as a "major obstacle" in peace efforts, saying, "The United States' policy in the Middle East is usually dictated by Israel's interests and not the United States' interests." He also blamed AIPAC and other Israel-oriented interest groups for making up stories about weapons being transferred to Hamas and Hizbullah via Syria. He did say, though, that "we are so proud of supporting Hamas and Hizbullah" because of their fight against Israel. He concluded, "I think it's the duty of every country in the world, including the United States, to support Hamas." When it came to Israel's goal of breaking Syria's ties with Iran as part of any peace agreement, Moustapha was dismissive. "We don't see any reason for this. Syria is a sovereign state. Iran is a friendly sovereign state." Instead, he suggested that Syria use its relations with Iran to facilitate talks between Teheran and Washington.