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US to Send Envoys to Syria


The United States will send two senior officials to Syria within the next few days, possibly signaling a new direction in Middle East diplomacy by the Obama administration.

The initial announcement of the decision to dispatch two senior envoys to Damascus came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Jerusalem.

The officials are Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and Daniel Shapiro, who oversees Middle East issues at the National Security Council.

The trip will follow recent visits to Syria by U.S. lawmakers, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry.

It also follows meetings between State Department officials and Syria's ambassador Imad Mustafa to the United States.

State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid says the Obama administration is ready for talks with the Syrian government.

"This is one effort on our part to engage with the Syrians on what productive roles they could play, not only for Middle East peace, but also on Iraq," he said. "Do we want to engage with the Syrians? Yes we do."

The Bush administration recalled its ambassador to Syria in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Duguid says the time is not yet ripe to send a new ambassador to Damascus.

"It would in a normal relationship be unusual to not have an ambassador in place," he said. "We have not had a normal relationship for some time. We are working with the other foreign policy agencies in the U.S. government to develop a better relationship or the means for a better relationship with Syria, but this cannot be unreciprocated."

The United States has criticized Syria for supporting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and for not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing its border into Iraq.

U.S. officials have also expressed concern that Syria had a secret North Korea-designed nuclear reactor in a remote desert, until it was bombed by Israeli jets in 2007.

Spokesman Duguid says the Obama administration is currently reviewing its policy toward Damascus.

"We are looking at our Syria policy right now," he said. "We are discussing our relationship with the Syrians. I do not have to go down for you the list of things that are differences that we have with them at the moment. We will see where these meetings go before we go to the next step."

Secretary Clinton says it is too early to predict the future of U.S.-Syria relations or whether the troubled relationship will improve.

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