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United States Opens Up Syrian Track

Secretary Clinton said in Jerusalem that the US is sending two officials to Damascus in a further break from the Bush boycott of the Assad regime.
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
First Publish: 3/3/2009, 6:45 PM

Israel News Photo: Flash 90

The United States is sending two officials to Damascus as the Obama government continues to change the Bush administration policy of isolating countries that support terrorism, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at a press conference in Jerusalem Tuesday.

“There are a number of issues that we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional issues that Syria obviously poses," Secretary Clinton stated after meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“We have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be” but added, “We don't engage in discussions for the sake of having a conversation.” The two-man delegation to Syria will comprise one person from the White House and one from the State Department.

Syria is a close ally of Iran, backs the Hizbullah terrorist organization in Lebanon and is the home of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who guides the de facto government in Gaza.

Secretary Clinton's choice to make the announcement in Jerusalem sent a clear signal to Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu of the course of the new American administration.

President Barack Obama resumed direct diplomatic contacts with Syria last month when the State Department sent Jeffrey Feltman, its senior Middle East official, to meet with the Syrian ambassador to the U.S. for the first time in five years. 

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last year authorized indirect talks with Syria via Turkish negotiators. The discussions were halted following the Prime Minister’s resignation, although he has continued to serve in the wake of new elections following the failure of his Kadima party successor Tzipi Livni to form a new government.

Syria has insisted that talks with Israel be based on the understanding that Jerusalem will give up the strategic Golan Heights. Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu has declared that the Golan is not negotiable.
 
A key element in American-Syrian discussions will be the Damascus-Hamas-Hizbullah-Iran axis. Prime Minister Olmert said that Syrian President Bashar Assad must cut his ties with terrorism in order for direct negotiations with Israel to take place.
 
Amos Gilad, head of the political-security bureau of the Defense Ministry, told a University of Tel Aviv conference this week that Hizbullah, which Syria helps arm, is a major threat to Israel.

He asserted that just like Gaza is called Hamastan, Lebanon is becoming Hizbullistan. "Strategically, Hizbullah wants a new Middle East, with Israel as the target," according to Gilad.