US envoy finds 'common ground' in Syria

But top diplomat cautions not to expect immediate results; Clinton: Too early to draw conclusions.

Jeffrey Feltman 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Jeffrey Feltman 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A top US diplomat called his talks in Damascus on Saturday "very constructive," in a sign of the engagement the Obama administration is commencing with a country long regarded as a principal adversary. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman also said that there was common ground between the two countries, even as he cautioned that no one should expect an immediate breakthrough. The meeting Feltman and National Security Council senior director Daniel Shapiro held with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was the highest-level meeting between US and Syrian officials since 2005. It is the beginning of a process of engagement that US President Barack Obama has long promised. Though nothing tangible was seen coming out of the meeting, both sides indicated they would like better relations and would work toward that end. "We found a lot of common ground today," Feltman told reporters after the talks, calling any expectation of specific results from the meeting "simply unrealistic at this point." Syria said the two sides were in agreement on the "importance of continuing the dialogue to achieve goals that serve common interests and bring about peace and stability to the region," according to the official news agency SANA. Washington would welcome Damascus's help on Iraq, Lebanon and inter-Palestinian reconciliation, something the Syrians have said they are doing. Feltman said both sides agreed on the benefits of a stable and secure Iraq. The Americans are also interested in the resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria, which had been taking place indirectly, with Turkish mediation, until Damascus called them off when the war with Hamas in Gaza began in December. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Turkey on Saturday, at the tail end of her first foray to Europe, stressing the importance of America's ties with a Muslim country that have been somewhat strained in recent years. While there, Clinton said the process with Syria was just starting and that it was too early to draw any conclusions. "We are just at the beginning of exploring the issues that we must discuss between us," Clinton said. "We have not decided on any next steps." Before arriving in Syria on Saturday, Feltman and Shapiro first traveled to Lebanon to reassure the government there that any outreach to Damascus would not come at Lebanon's expense. Many Lebanese are worried that Syrian President Bashar Assad is exploiting engagement with the West, as well as the prospect of peace talks with Israel, to distract attention from his ambitions in Lebanon. The US withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which was widely blamed on Damascus. Differences between the two countries "will require more work," Feltman said. "I would expect that the Syrians will be thinking about what we had to say, just as we'll be thinking about what the Syrians had to say, and each of us can look to see if there are ways to address the differences." America has long wanted Syria to drop support for Hizbullah and Hamas and hopes to peel Syria away from its alliance with Iran - two demands Syria rejects. Feltman hosted Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, for a rare meeting at the State Department last week ahead of his trip to the region. Moustapha said he felt a different attitude coming from the Americans, according to a New York Times report. "They've given up on the idea of Syria has to do this and that," he said, describing the current conversations as an "in-depth exploratory dialogue," in contrast to the failed approach of the past. On Friday, the US stated that it wasn't changing its policy on shunning Hizbullah, even though Britain had decided to speak to its political wing, which holds sway in the Lebanese parliament. "The British decision is something that they are going to pursue, and we will watch how that proceeds. But our position has not changed," said acting deputy spokesman of the State Department, Gordon Duguid.