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US Won't Follow British Lead on Hezbollah Dialogue

Two senior U.S. diplomats are due to arrive in Damascus Saturday in a visit upgrading the level of U.S.-Syrian contacts.

Officials here said the Obama administration has no intention of matching the British opening to Hezbollah, which has long been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization.

However the United States is not being publicly critical of the British move, and officials said they will be interested in the results, if any, of the British contacts.

The British government said Thursday it had authorized what were termed carefully selected contacts with Hezbollah's political wing, which is represented in the Lebanese parliament, ending a four-year freeze on contacts with the militant Shiite group.

The move comes as the Obama administration itself is easing policy toward contacts with regional adversaries, with a U.S. delegation visiting Syria on Saturday and an assertion by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday that Iran should be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan later this month.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid had a mild response to the British move. He said the United States will watch how the Hezbollah dialogue proceeds but that the U.S. position towards the group - and its history of terrorist attacks against Americans - has not changed.

"Our position on Hezbollah is not going to change, until we see changes on the part of Hezbollah. This is the organization, as you will remember, that had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group before 9-11. Our stated position on Hezbollah has been consistent. Other nations will have, from time to time, positions that differ with those of the United States. We will watch in this case and see how this policy from the U.K. proceeds," he said.

Duguid said British officials advised the United States in advance of the diplomatic move, apparently during the Washington visit earlier this week of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The United States maintains relations with the Lebanese government of President Michel Suleiman but does not interact with ministries in the unity cabinet that are controlled by Hezbollah.

A State Department official confirmed that two senior U.S. officials who were in Beirut Friday will travel to Damascus Saturday for talks with the Syrian government, which along with Iran has been a major supporter of Hezbollah.

Despite major differences with Syria, the Obama administration has sought to revive dialogue with that country. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and National Security Council Middle East adviser Daniel Shapiro will be the highest-level U.S. officials to visit Damascus since 2005.

Obama administration officials said the success to the opening to Syria will depend on that country's willingness to end support for terrorism and militant factions opposing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

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