Saturday, March 7, 2009

New US-Syria talks 'constructive'

A senior US envoy involved in the first high-level contact between the US and Syria since 2005 has said the talks were "very constructive".

Jeffrey Feltman, acting US secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, met officials including Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in the capital, Damascus.

Speaking after the talks, Mr Feltman said the US looked forward to progress on bilateral ties and regional issues.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also cited Syria's regional role.

Speaking in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Saturday, Mrs Clinton said that the importance of the Syrian-Israeli peace track "cannot be overstated".

Turkey has previously mediated in indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, suspended last year, and has said it is ready to re-launch the talks if both sides are willing.

Syria's ambassador to Britain told the BBC that the US must consider Arab aspirations and not just those of the Israelis.

US-Syria relations soured after Syria was widely accused of involvement in the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - an allegation Damascus denied.

Shortly afterwards Syria pulled out its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence in the country.

'Long list'

Mr Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, was accompanied on the Damascus trip by Daniel Shapiro, of the White House's National Security Council.

The pair have not met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ahead of the trip, Mr Feltman said the US envoys had a "long list" of concerns to discuss with Syrian officials.

Mr Feltman said: "Our trip to Syria... is an opportunity for us to start addressing these concerns and using engagement as a tool to promote our objectives in the region."

He also sought to reassure the Lebanese that US support for Beirut was "unwavering", despite the latest overtures towards Damascus.

The pair are expected to return to Beirut on Sunday for further consultations.

BBC state department correspondent Kim Ghattas, in Washington, says the US is concerned by Syria's support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, alleged covert nuclear activities and interference in Lebanon's affairs.

But Mr Feltman said the talks were not about finger-pointing but about discussing differences and identifying areas where American and Syrian concerns overlapped, our correspondent says.

He said Washington's strategy for engagement was goal-oriented, a way to achieve objectives for diplomacy, our correspondent adds. No benchmarks or dates for further meetings were set.

Last month several leading US congressmen, including Senator John Kerry, went on an unofficial visit to Damascus for talks with the president.

'Gateway to peace'

Mr Feltman served as US ambassador in Beirut until 2008, and is currently an acting assistant secretary of state.

As a congressional aide, Mr Shapiro was instrumental in drafting the Syria Accountability Act, which placed sanctions on Damascus in 2003.

During his time in Lebanon, Damascus accused Mr Feltman of orchestrating an anti-Syrian movement in Lebanon.

Syria's ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, told the BBC before Saturday's meeting: "Syria is the gateway to peace in the Middle East.

"I think the American government, Mr Obama personally, has to take care of the aspirations of the Arab peoples and not only of the Israeli people."

The last senior US official to visit Damascus was Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, in January 2005.

Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria shortly afterwards, following Mr Hariri's assassination.

Damascus has tried to paint Saturday's visit as something of a victory, proof that standing fast in the face of US pressure over the last few years has paid off, our correspondent says.

But the choice of envoys seems to signal that Washington is taking a tough but serious approach to its engagement, says our correspondent.