US official to meet with Syrian negotiator in DC.

Washington downplays suggestions of further shift in US attitudes toward Middle Eastern adversaries.

David Welch good 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
David Welch good 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
For the second time this week, a senior American official will meet with representatives of a Middle Eastern country that the US has sought to isolate diplomatically. David Welch, US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is set to speak with Riad Daoudi, the Syrian Foreign Ministry's legal counselor and lead Syrian negotiator for the ongoing indirect talks with Israel, as well as fellow Syrian advisers and analysts during their visit here this week. The meeting comes on the heels of a trip by US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, the third-highest US diplomat, to attend an international meeting with Iranian and other officials over Teheran's nuclear program Saturday, a major change for an administration that had until recently ruled out such contacts. The Syrian delegation will be in town in coordination with the US-Syria Working Group, a multi-month project spearheaded by the NGO Search for Common Ground in an effort to advance relations between the two countries and defuse tensions in the Middle East region. The State Department downplayed the meeting and suggestions that it represented a further shift in American attitudes toward Middle Eastern adversaries or an opening in the relationship between Washington and Damascus. Ann Somerset, the spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, described Welch's meeting as "routine" and not indicative of a change in a policy that has limited diplomatic contact with high-ranking officials over Syria's "destabilizing" policies in the region. "It's customary for the State Department to receive these kinds of visitors," Somerset said. "This is a private group, not a government delegation." But many observers who track the US-Syrian relationship took a different view. "These guys are close to the regime," said Syria expert David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They're coming with the blessing of the regime. Some of them work for the regime." And Ori Nir, who covered the US-Syrian relationship as an Israeli journalist in Washington for many years, disagreed with the notion such a meeting is ordinary. "To imply that the visit is routine - that's not the case. Senior Syrian delegations have not routinely come to Washington." Still, Nir cautioned against seeing the meeting as a significant change in the American position. "I would love to say that there's a new day where the Bush administration has [committed] to engagement," said Nir, who now serves as the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a group that advocates Israeli-Syrian peace talks. "We haven't seen that happening yet." Schenker, who takes a more skeptical view of the utility of Israeli-Syrian talks, also urged against reading too much into the encounter. "I don't think this particular meeting is the ice breaking," said Schenker, pointing to America's many issues with the Syrian government. Somerset said US policy on the negotiations "remains the same," with the US "encouraging discussion" that could lead to peace between Israel and its neighbors while continuing to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Nir said that since the US had made some statements in favor of Israeli-Syrian talks - even if it hadn't roundly endorsed them - it made sense that the State Department would hold a visit with such a group while it was in town. He added that it did send a positive message about the US perspective on the endeavor. Israeli officials, meanwhile, said that Jerusalem had no objection to US contacts with the Syrians, and that it would be difficult for Israel to oppose this contact since Israel itself was holding indirect talks with the Syrians and would like to see those talks become direct negotiations in the near future. According to an Israeli diplomatic official, any US interest in establishing contact with Syria was likely linked to the fact that Syrian President Bashar Assad had broken out of his isolation. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was planning a presidential visit to Damascus in September, the official said, adding that in that situation it would be "ridiculous" for the US to be "completely out of the picture." "Israel is indirectly speaking to the Syrians, the French are on their way to Damascus, Assad made some gestures in Lebanon - the US wants to have its hand on the pulse," the official said. He added that this would not be the first high level Syrian-US contact, since US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem last year on the sidelines of an international conference in Sharm e-Sheikh. Indeed, the US has not had the blanket policy of isolation toward Syria that it has had toward Iran. While the US has not had diplomatic relations with Teheran since the Iranian Revolutions, the US and Syria each maintain embassies in the other nation's capital. The Israeli official also suggested that contact with the Syrians - like the US presence over the weekend in talks with the Iranians, and some talk in the Bush administration of a timetable for a phased withdrawal from Iraq - could be connected to the US elections. According to the official, these steps could very well be meant to "take the sting out" of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's foreign policy platform. Obama advocates engagement with both Iran and Syria, as well as a troop withdrawal from Iraq. Herb Keinon contributed to this report from Jerusalem.