The Jerusalem Post (Link) (June 24, 2009)
The US State Department on Wednesday praised Syria for its "constructive role to promote peace and stability" as it announced plans to return an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year absence.
The move represents a considerable warming in relations between the two countries, as the US has rejected the policy of isolation employed by the Bush administration in favor of one of engagement.
The move follows four visits to Damascus by top American officials, and State Department spokesman Ian Kelly cited the "good discussions" held on those occasions as well as Syria's "addressing some of our very real concerns about foreign fighters crossing from Syria" into Iraq in discussing Damascus's improved behavior.
"This decision reflects the administration's recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region and, of course, we hope that they will continue to play such a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region," he said of the decision to appoint an ambassador, who has still not be named.
He also said, though, that "we continue to have concerns about Syria's role in this region, and we think one way to address those concerns is to have an ambassador in Damascus."
Kelly denied that there was any link in the timing of the announcement - long rumored to be in the works - with the chaos that has roiled Iran, Syria's close ally, in the past week.
"I think this is just the natural culmination of an evolution of our reengagement with Syria," he said, adding that he was unaware that the move was subject to "any influence of the very dramatic situation going on in Iran."
Some observers have suggested that the Obama administration would want to strike another blow to Iranian influence - or at least take advantage of emerging cracks in its image as a dominant regional power - by advancing ties with Damascus.
Though Syria has said it would not be willing to withdraw from its strategic alliance with Iran in favor of the West, the US hopes that the prospect of a warming relationship would do just that as part of a peace deal with Israel. And Jerusalem, which has expressed an openness to talks with Syria, sees Syria breaking ties with Iranian-backed groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas as an essential piece of any peace deal.
But the day after the US informed the Syrian ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, of the ambassador decision, Syrian President Bashar Assad blasted Israel and suggested it was not possible for any peace process to move forward.
"Achieving peace requires an Israeli partner and commitment to international law, United Nations resolutions and the land-for-peace principles. This Israeli partner does not currently exist," Assad said at a press conference in Greece.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, took a wait-and-see attitude toward the US decision to send an ambassador back to Syria.
Ever since the Obama administration began making overtures to Damascus, Jerusalem has been careful not to intervene in the matter, or to say whether this was good or bad for Israel. Rather, the position has been that if the Obama administration felt this was the direction it wanted to go, then it should pursue it.
It was also taken for granted in Jerusalem that the US engagement policy was first and foremost an attempt to get the Syrians to close their border with Iraq. The source said that if the US would in this way get the Syrians to pull back from Iran or reduce support for Hizbullah and Hamas, it would be seen in Jerusalem as a positive step.
At this point, however, it is impossible to know whether that is possible.
The official added that the move should not be seen as something that would immediately lead to a resuscitation of an Israeli-Syrian diplomatic channel. Indeed, the official said, it was not even clear whether the Obama administration was very keen on such a channel, concerned that it could be used as an excuse by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to abandon the Palestinian track.
Another diplomatic official said Washington's decision came as "no surprise" and was the logical outgrowth of the US delegations that have visited Damascus in recent months. "The Obama administration wants engagement, and this is engagement," the official said.
The US withdrew its ambassador in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syria has denied any involvement in the killing but is the subject of international investigations. †
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