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Dancing with Damascus: Washington Engages by David Schenker

Two senior Administration officials will travel to Damascus for meetings with their Syrian counterparts. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and NSC Middle East Director Dan Shapiro's visit constitutes the highest-level US-Syria bilateral contact in years. The meeting follows closely on a series of US diplomatic overtures toward Syria, and a meeting last week between Ambassador Feltman and Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha.

After the assassination for former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005--a crime in which Syria is the leading suspect--Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria, and the Bush Administration largely avoided high-level contacts with Damascus.

The Obama Administration's outreach to Syria comes as no surprise. During his campaign and after his election, Senator and later President Obama pledged to talk to Syria. The goal, according to administration officials, would be to "test" whether Damascus was truly interested in peace with Israel and an improvement in relations with Washington. Achieving these objectives largely depends on a Syrian willingness to distance itself from its 30-year strategic ally, Iran. For its part, Damascus repeatedly has said that a "strategic reorientation" away from Tehran will not occur.

In its representations to Syria and its public statements, the Obama Administration thus far has been rather cautious, lowering expectations of a breakthrough. Last week, before the Feltman-Mustapha meeting, Foggy Bottom issued a statement detailing several ongoing concerns in the bilateral relationship, including "Syria's support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria's pursuit of nuclear and nonconventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon and a worsening human rights situation." (more)

More recently, from Jerusalem, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that Washington would "not engage in discussions for the sake of having conversation. There has to be a purpose to them, there has to be a perceived benefit for the US."

At the same time, the Administration has been careful to put Damascus on notice--and to reassure its pro-west allies in the March 14 coalition-led Government in Beirut--that Washington remains committed to Lebanese sovereignty and the Cedar Revolution.

So far, the Obama Administration has hit the right tone in the engagement, both rhetorically, and in its appointment of Feltman--the former US Ambassador to Lebanon--as the chief interlocutor for the talks. Feltman embodies US support to March 14, and is not liked by Damascus. Given Syria's continued unhelpful policies--on Hamas, Hizballah, Iraq, Lebanon, and obstructing the IAEA investigation into its alleged nuclear facility--US skepticism is not only warranted, its advisable.

I've written a longer piece on Washington's Engagement with Damascus, and how the administration is balancing the talks with its commitment to Lebanese Allies, which can be found here..

David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director.

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