Two senior US officials to travel to Syria

Clinton: White House, State Dept. representatives to visit Damascus for "preliminary conversations."

Walid Moallem 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Walid Moallem 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Washington is dispatching two senior US diplomats to Damascus for "preliminary conversations" on bilateral and regional issues, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Tuesday, in what would be the highest-level visit by US officials in four years. "We are going to be sending two officials to Syria," Clinton said at a Jerusalem press conference after meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "There are a number of issues we have between Syria and the United States, as well as larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses," she said. The delegation - Jeff Feltman from the State Department and Dan Shapiro from the White House - would go to explore these "bilateral issues" with Syria, she said. She added that the US had "no way to project what the future of our relations with Syria might be." Clinton said the discussions were not for the "sake of conversation," but that there "has to be a purpose for them and some perceived benefit accruing to the US and our allies and our shared values." Feltman and Shapiro are currently traveling with Clinton, and according to State Department deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid, they will travel to Damascus before Saturday. Feltman met Syria's ambassador to the US Imad Mustafa last week in Washington, and on Monday, during the Gaza Strip reconstruction conference in Sharm e-Sheikh, Clinton stopped briefly and shook hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. The US recalled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 as a protest of Syria's alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Duguid, speaking at the State Department's daily press briefing in Washington, said Feltman and Shapiro would be the highest-level US administration officials to visit Syria since 2005. Since then, however, a number of senators and congressmen have visited there, the most recent being Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry last month. Zalman Shoval, one of Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu's top foreign policy advisers, said he was not aware that the matter of Syria had come up in Netanyahu's conversation with Clinton. Shoval said he thought the dispatching of the two to Damascus was not meant to facilitate an immediate détente between Syria and the US, but to sound out Syria about ending support to Hamas and Hizbullah. "This seems to be a fact-finding mission, not a gesture," Shoval said, adding that the Netanyahu camp had serious doubts about Syria's ability or willingness to disconnect from Iran. Clinton, referring to a possible Israeli-Syrian diplomatic track, said this would be a matter on the agenda once a government was established in Israel. Netanyahu has expressed skepticism in the past about being able to reach any agreement with Syria, because of a belief that Damascus would be unable to break ties with Teheran.