- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

In an abrupt about-face, the State Department on Wednesday scrubbed plans to meet with a visiting delegation from Syria, a meeting that could have signaled an easing of tense U.S. relations with Damascus.

One day after he said the delegation, in Washington on what is described as a private visit, would be received by a top State Department official, spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the meeting will not take place.

“We’ve taken a look at their scheduling, we’ve taken a look at their program, and we’re not going to be able to [have a meeting] at this time,” Mr. Gallegos said.

On Tuesday, the spokesman said the department was ready to meet with the group “at an appropriate level,” and did not rule out the possibility of a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State David C. Welch, the department’s Mideast point man.

Syria, which has close ties to Iran and militant groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, is officially considered a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government. But Syrian President Bashar Assad has tried in recent months to break out of the country’s diplomatic isolation and has even authorized indirect talks with Israel over a possible peace accord.

The Syrian delegation, part of a U.S.-Syria “working group” sponsored by the private Search for Common Ground organization, originally included Riad Daoudi, legal adviser to the Syrian Foreign Ministry and the lead negotiator in the talks with Israel now being conducted in Turkey.

Mr. Daoudi at the last minute did not make the trip, but the group does include Ahmad Samir al-Taki, director of a leading Damascus think tank and an adviser to Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari.

Even before canceling the meeting, the Bush administration was cool to direct engagement with the Assad regime and has given only minimal encouragement to the prospect of a separate Israeli-Syrian peace deal settling territorial disputes dating back to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

There is concern that a deal with Syria could upset the dynamics of parallel peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that Mr. Bush has said is his top priority.

“We’ve been very clear in the past and continue to be so that we’re looking at the Israeli-Palestinian track,” Mr. Gallegos said Tuesday.

Both critics and supporters of a rapprochement with Syria said the possible meeting with Mr. Welch or another ranking State Department official - even in private - would have carried heavy symbolic overtones.

The Lebanon Resistance Foundation, a Washington-based group, warned that a meeting with the visiting delegation would “send the wrong message to Lebanese and Lebanese-Americans still struggling to end the Syrian regime’s support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups and its meddling in internal Lebanese affairs.”



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