U.S. sends diplomats to Syria in peace probe

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

JERUSALEM -- The United States will dispatch two emissaries to Syria for "preliminary conversations" aimed at warming relations with an Arab adversary accused of supporting terrorism, seeking weapons of mass destruction, facilitating the insurgency in neighboring Iraq and balking at talking peace with Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday.

The Syria move is one element in a set of diplomatic maneuvers the Obama administration is enacting as it attempts to steer a new course toward a broad Middle East peace that includes long-term stability in Iraq and a squelching of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The outlook is clouded by Israel's struggle to create a unity government after inconclusive national elections last month, internal divisions in the Palestinian Authority that is Israel's peacemaking partner and the militant rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The man President Obama chose to attempt to navigate those hazards, George Mitchell, accompanied Clinton in her talks Tuesday with Israeli leaders.

Clinton said that while success for the Syrian outreach was not assured, it reflected Obama's determination to take a new approach to foreign policy.

"There is no way to predict what the future of our relations concerning Syria might be," Clinton said. But she suggested the administration had weighed the potential costs and benefits to stepping up its engagement.

"We don't engage in discussions for the sake of having a conversation," she said. "There has to be a purpose to them. There has to be some perceived benefit accruing to the United States and our allies and our shared values. But I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations."

U.S.-Syrian relations have been tense, particularly since the U.S. ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was removed from Damascus by the Bush administration in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus denied involvement but in the uproar that followed was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence.

Clinton was not specific about what the U.S. emissaries -- Mideast experts Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council and Jeffrey Feltman of the State Department -- would seek to achieve in Damascus, beyond what she called exploring issues of concern to the United States. Last month Feltman met with Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, to raise U.S. concerns, including human rights, nuclear weapons and terrorism, and several members of Congress have visited Damascus in recent weeks.

Feltman and Shapiro are due in Damascus later this week.

The last time a U.S. diplomat of Feltman's rank visited Damascus was September 2004 when William J. Burns went with a senior Pentagon official in a largely unsuccessful effort to persuade the Syrians to stop the flow of foreign fighters across its border into Iraq.

On her first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state, Clinton met Tuesday with top Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. She declared that the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement with Israel "seems inescapable." Her comment was notable because it appeared at odds with Netanyahu's view on the way ahead with the Palestinians. At the same time, Clinton promised to work with the new Israeli government.

For the second straight day she suggested Israel might be justified in renewing a military offensive in Gaza in response to further rocket attacks by Hamas -- a message sure to be welcomed by a caretaker Israeli government that is under international pressure to expand the opening of border crossings in Gaza to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief and commerce.

Clinton spoke of a "double reality" -- the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza as a result of the recent Israeli air and ground assault, and unacceptable rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, which Israel cites as a reason not to expand the border crossings.

The aim, Clinton said, is a durable cease-fire.

"That can only be achieved if Hamas ceases the rocket attacks," she said. "No nation should be expected to sit idly by and allow rockets assault its people and its territory. These attacks must stop and so must the smuggling of weapons into Gaza." She made the same point on Monday at a news conference in Egypt, where she announced $300 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Clinton's visit came at an awkward time, with uncertainty about the outcome of Netanyahu's attempt to create a ruling coalition.

Netanyahu opposes a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. He talks of giving the Palestinians autonomy but opposes key aspects of statehood, such as control over borders and airspace or having an army. His plan has been to pursue an "economic peace," developing the Palestinian economy so that one day conditions will be ripe for some sort of permanent settlement with Israel.

Netanyahu's criticism in the past of peace talks with the Palestinians and the possibility of Palestinian independence has raised concerns that his new government could clash with the United States.

Clinton began her day by meeting with President Shimon Peres, who greeted her with a peck on the cheek and a bouquet of flowers "for the most flowery lady."

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