Obama sending ambassador to Syria after years

President Barack Obama gestures as he takes a question during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 23, 2009. President Barack Obama gestures as he takes a question during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
By Steven R. Hurst
Associated Press Writer / June 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama plans to return an ambassador to Syria, filling a post that has been vacant for four years and marking an acceleration of Washington's engagement with the Arab world, the White House said on Wednesday.

Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama's decision was aimed at fulfilling his promise to show more U.S. engagement in the Arab world and not a response to any explicit policy change on Syria's part.

He cited a series of meetings between Syrian and U.S. officials since Obama took office.

"This strongly reflects the administration's recognition of the role Syria plays, and the hope of the role that the Syrian government can play constructively, to promote peace and stability in the region," Gibbs said.

The move reinforces Obama's determination, outlined in his Cairo speech earlier this month, to deepen America's role in the Middle East as he seeks to broker peace among Israel and its Arab neighbors and improve U.S. relations in the region.

A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity before the announcement was made said: "The president believes that diplomatic engagement helps serve our interests, and that the current policy didn't make sense."

Jeffrey D. Feltman, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, informed Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, of the plan on Tuesday night.

Moustapha, said that U.S.-Syrian relations "were headed in the right direction" and away from the freeze during the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, Moustapha said, "It is still difficult to talk about radical change in the relationship but we can talk about advancing in small, but consecutive and positive steps."

Feltman and White House official Daniel Shapiro have both visited Damascus, the Syrian capital, at least twice this year as part of talks about bettering relations with a country shunned by former President George W. Bush.

The move comes as Syria's close ally Iran is in tumult over the June 12 presidential election which kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. His challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, says the vote was rigged and his supporters have mounted massive demonstrations. At least 17 were killed by security forces.

Syria also remains a key to establishing peace with Israel, which still occupies the strategic Golan Heights, captured from Damascus in the 1967 war.

Syria held indirect talks with Israel last year, mediated by Turkey. But the discussions were halted during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December and January. Syria has since said it was ready to resume indirect talks with Israel's new hard-line government as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the move was a matter for the United States and Syria.

"We have never interfered in decisions by the Americans or anyone else. What is important is to see some kind of change in Syrian policy, and unfortunately we have not seen any change," he said. "Syria is not prepared to hold direct talks with Israel without preconditions. What should disturb us is this Syrian policy, which is not encouraging, and I don't see any signs there of a desire to see any progress or any real peace."

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest Syrian actions in neighboring Lebanon. Washington has criticized Syria and Iran for supporting Islamic militant groups such as the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon's Hezbollah. The U.S. also has accused Syria of not doing enough to stop the infiltration of militants to fight U.S. and allied forces in neighboring Iraq.


Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.