- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

JERUSALEM | Two senior envoys are about to make the highest-level U.S. visit to Syria in more than four years, a major reversal of Bush administration efforts to isolate the Damascus government.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday that Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, the top Middle East specialist on the White House National Security Council, will travel to Syria after Mrs. Clinton completes her first Middle East trip as secretary later in the week.

“We are going to be sending two officials to Syria,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters. “There are a number of issues we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses.”

Mrs. Clinton said that while she could not predict what might come from the outreach, “it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations.”

She said the decision was made after Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Damascus last month.

The secretary’s announcement came two days after the opening of an international tribunal in The Hague to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian officials have been investigated in the killing.

The Bush administration had high-level contacts with Syria during its first term, mainly on the initiative of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, both of whom visited Damascus. It suspended those contacts, however, after Mr. Hariri’s assassination and withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Middle East specialists said the latest move was not surprising, given President Obama’s remarks in his inaugural address that Washington was willing to extend a hand to hostile regimes if they “unclench” their fists.

“This does not come as a surprise, although it comes a little earlier than expected,” said David Schenker, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Syrians won’t be pleased about Feltman [a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon]. The Lebanese will be nervous, although somewhat reassured that Feltman’s the lead interlocutor.”

Mr. Feltman served in Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Last year, his embassy convoy was bombed and three Lebanese civilians were killed, including an embassy employee.

Syria has allied itself with Iran in recent years and has supported both Hezbollah and the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Western diplomats have expressed hope that those alliances could be broken or at least weakened if Damascus is approached and persuaded that its interests are better served by helping the West.

At the same time, Syria took part in indirect talks with Israel mediated by Turkey. The talks ended after Israel began a 22-day offensive in Gaza. Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy aide to presumptive new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel would let the U.S. evaluate Syrian positions before deciding on resuming peace negotiations.

On Monday, Mrs. Clinton committed the new administration to seeking a “comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

The Bush administration tended not to use “comprehensive,” a code word for peace between Israel and all its remaining Arab adversaries: the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. Instead it stressed the Palestinian track and specific issues short of Palestinian statehood, such as security, Palestinian freedom of movement and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“The U.S. is prepared to engage in aggressive diplomacy with all sides in pursuit of a comprehensive settlement that brings peace and security to Israel and its Arab neighbors,” Mrs. Clinton said at a donors’ conference for Gaza in Egypt.

She had a brief exchange with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem during the event’s luncheon.

Last week, Mr. Feltman met with the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha. The decision to send the two envoys was apparently made soon after that meeting, but Mrs. Clinton waited to announce it after briefing the Israeli government first.

“In consultation with our friends and allies, our partners, we are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are possible,” she said Monday.

• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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