Thursday, April 22, 2010

TALLIN, Estonia (AP) — The Obama administration still is committed to improving relations with Syria despite its “deeply troubling” moves to aid the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in neighboring Lebanon, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking at a news conference before the opening of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in this Baltic capital, said the administration has concluded that the benefits of sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus — after a five-year absence — outweigh the costs.

“The larger question as to what the United States will do with respect to Syria is one we’ve spent a lot of time considering and debating inside the administration,” she said. “Where we are as of today is that we believe it is important to continue the process to return an ambassador; this is not some kind of reward for the Syrians and the actions they take that are deeply disturbing.”

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She said the presence of an ambassador gives Washington a better insight into what is happening in Damascus.

“We have a long list of areas that we have discussed with the Syrians, and we intend to continue pushing our concerns, and we think having an ambassador there adds to the ability to convey that message strongly and hopefully influence behavior in Syria,” she said.

Some U.S. senators are threatening to hold up the confirmation of the administration’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Syria, career diplomat Robert Ford, because of unconfirmed reports that Syria was transferring Scud missiles to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Mrs. Clinton did not confirm the reports. Without mentioning Scuds or Iran, which many believe is the source of the missiles, she described the situation in a way that strongly suggested that the United States does not believe Scuds have been transferred to Hezbollah yet.

Mrs. Clinton referred to “these stories that do suggest there has been some transfer of weapons technology into Syria with the potential purpose of then later transferring it to Hezbollah inside Syria.” Pressed to say whether she meant that the Scuds in Syria had originated in Iran, she replied, “I just said that we have expressed our concern about that.”

Israel, which regards Hezbollah as a major threat, has accused Syria of providing the group with Scuds. A Scud has a far longer range and can carry a much bigger warhead than the rockets Hezbollah has used in the past, and could reach anywhere in Israel from Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon. Syria has denied the charge, as has Lebanon’s Western-backed prime minister.

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