- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2011

DIPLOMACY IN SYRIA

U.S. Ambassador Robert Fordpresented his credentials to the president of Syria on Thursday, reopening full diplomatic relations with a country the State Department lists as a sponsor of terrorism.

In the sometimes cryptic language of diplomacy, Mr. Ford hinted of candid talks with SyrianPresident Bashar Assad, who both supports Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and cooperates to some extent with Washington on Middle East intelligence issues.

“Relations between the United States and Syria often have been challenging,” Mr. Ford said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. “President al-Assad and I talked about some areas in which we hope to identify mutual interests and ways of addressing them that serve the interests of both of our countries.”

Mr. Ford added that President Obama is sending a message by appointing an ambassador to Syria, nearly six years after President George W. Bush withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

“President Obama sending me here is proof that we are committed to try and solve the problems between our governments,” Mr. Ford said.

Syria’s support for Hezbollah’s aggressive pursuit of offensive missiles pushed the region closer to another conflict between Israel and the militant group, which also has a powerful political wing in Lebanon. Hezbollah legislators brought down the coalition government this month when they walked out of the Cabinet over a dispute over a U.N. investigation into the Hariri assassination.

Syria’s determined support of Hezbollah’s military buildup, particularly the steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles, could change the military balance and produce a scenario significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war [between Israel and Hezbollah],” the U.S. Embassy said in a secret cable to the State Department in 2009.

In another secret cable, the embassy last year reported that Mr. Assad was signaling his desire for more cooperation with the United States in counterterrorism. Ali Mamlouk, the director of Syria’s intelligence agency, showed up unannounced for a meeting in Damascus between Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad and Daniel Benjamin, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator.

Calling Mr. Mamlouk’s visit a “surprise appearance,” the embassy said Mr. Miqdad “explained that Mamlouk joined the meeting at the request” of Mr. Assad, who was expressing his satisfaction over an earlier meeting with William J. Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

Both cables were released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

LEBANON ANXIOUS

The billionaire businessman expected to become Lebanon’s next prime minister is anxious that his ties to Hezbollah will hurt his country’s relations with the United States.

Najib Mikati said Thursday that he “confirmed … the importance of bilateral relations between Beirut and Washington” in talks with U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly, after the Obama administration issued strong objections to a government controlled by Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. blacklist of terrorist groups.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley this week denounced Hezbollah for its use of “coercion, intimidation and threats of violence … in pursuit of its political goals.”

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