WASHINGTON The U.S. government will send an ambassador to Syria after a four-year hiatus as President Barack Obama moves to improve ties between the two countries, the State Department said on Wednesday.
"As you know, we're prepared to move forward with Syria to advance our interests through direct and continuing dialogue," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
"Of course, you know that we continue to have concerns about Syria's role in this region, and we think one way to address those concerns is to have an ambassador in Damascus."
The move "reflects the administration's recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region ...," Kelly told reporters, adding that Washington had informed Damascus of its decision on Tuesday.
Another State Department official said the process was in its very early stages and the administration had not yet chosen a nominee for the ambassador's post.
Obama is working to rehabilitate U.S. relations with the Islamic world and the Arab Middle East.
Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria in 2005 to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denied any involvement in the killing.
A U.N. investigation into the assassination initially implicated several Syrian and Lebanese officials, but later reports have been more circumspect. A special U.N. tribunal set up to try suspects in Hariri's killing began work in The Hague in March.
Relations between Syria and the United States improved after Obama took office in January and U.S. officials said he was committed to seeking a peace deal between Syria and Israel as part of an overall Middle East peace deal.
The Syrian government, however, remains under U.S. sanctions, partly because of what the United States describes as a Syrian role in helping insurgents infiltrate Iraq.
The decision to appoint a U.S. ambassador follows a series of recent visits to Damascus by high-level U.S. military and diplomatic delegations.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Chris Wilson)