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Clinton Cautious About US-Syria Dialogue

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it is too early to say if the United States' troubled relationship with Syria is headed for a thaw. Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, paid an unusual high-profile call at the State Department Thursday.

The Syrian envoy said after his meeting with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman that the discussion was very constructive and was only the first in a series of U.S.-Syrian contacts.

However Obama administration officials were more cautious, saying the future of the relationship depends on whether Syria is willing to be responsive to U.S. concerns about what is seen as interference in Lebanon, and support for radicals opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

The United States has not had a full ambassador in Damascus since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which U.N. investigators implicated Syrian agents.

Though the two governments have working-level contacts, Ambassador Mustafa's visits to the State Department are rare. Asked about Thursday's meeting at an event with Kosovo's leadership, Secretary Clinton was cautious about where the Syria dialogue will lead.

"It is too soon to say what the future holds," said Hillary Clinton. "Obviously we are working very hard, as is our special envoy George Mitchell, to engage with not only the Israelis and the Palestinians but all of the neighbors in the region and beyond and we are going to pursue the commitment that we stated when we appointed our special envoy to try to bring the parties together for peace and stability in the Middle East."

Clinton will begin her first trip to the Middle East early next week, but will not visit Syria and according to officials is unlikely to have contact with her Syrian counterpart next Monday when they will both attend a donor conference for Gaza reconstruction in Egypt.

Ambassador Mustafa, none-the-less, told reporters he is encouraged about prospects for the future U.S.-Syrian relationship, given President Obama's stated willingness for dialogue with respect with U.S. adversaries.

"We believe that this meeting has explored possibilities between Syria and the United States to engage seriously on a diplomatic and political level and also discuss all issues of mutual concern to both parties," said Imad Mustafa. "We think this is a first step and we believe there will be many further meetings in the future."

State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood did not contest the ambassador's depiction of the discussion as constructive, but said future meetings were not agreed on and depend on Syrian actions to address U.S. concerns.

"We first want to see what comes out of the discussions in this meeting," said Robert Wood. "As you know, we're conducting a review of our Syria policy. We want to see, as I said, what steps the Syrians are willing to take to address our issues. We're certainly open to meeting them again if necessary. The Secretary has said that we want to engage Syria. But we do have a lot of concerns about Syrian behavior."

The State Department formally announced Clinton's trip late Thursday. After the Gaza conference in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Secretary goes to Jerusalem and Ramallah for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The trip also includes a March 5 NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, a Geneva meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a stop in Ankara.