JERUSALEM Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday the Obama administration would this week send two senior U.S. officials to Damascus to work on bilateral ties, in a further sign of thawing U.S.-Syria relations.
"We're going to dispatch a representative of the State Department, a representative of the White House, to explore with Syria some of these bilateral issues," Clinton said, announcing another step that could help Damascus improve its standing in the West after years of tensions.
"We have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be," she told a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
U.S. officials said the two emissaries would be Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and now acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Dan Shapiro of the White House's National Security Council.
The administration of President Barack Obama has been reviewing U.S. policy toward Syria, including whether to return an ambassador to Damascus, a move the former Bush administration had been considering in the final months in office.
The move also indicates a wish to lessen Iran's influence over Syria as part of broader regional peace plans and follows up on a campaign promise by Obama to talk to U.S. enemies rather than isolate them.
"The United States intends to pursue principled and sustained engagement with all of the countries in the broader Middle East, including Syria," said a State Department official traveling with Clinton.
Clinton, who briefly met Syria's foreign minister on Monday on the sidelines of a conference in Egypt, said she was not sure where the Damascus talks would lead.
"We don't engage in discussions for the sake of having a conversation. There has to be a purpose to them, there has to be some perceived benefit accruing to the United States and our allies," she said.
The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Feltman was ambassador to Lebanon at the time of Hariri's death.
Syria, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, denies any involvement in Hariri's murder but Washington pointed fingers at Damascus.
Last week, Clinton said it was too early to predict a thaw in ties after Feltman met Imad Mustafa, Syria's ambassador in Washington. Mustafa said the meeting could herald a new chapter in relations and that Syria was open to discuss all issues.
Clinton made no comment about when an ambassador would be sent back. In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said no decision had been made.
A U.S.-Syrian rapprochement could also help clear the way for Israel and Syria to restart indirect peace talks they held under Turkish mediation last year but which were halted after Israel's military offensive in Gaza in December and January.
Clinton said once a new government was formed in Israel, following its February 10 election, the Israeli-Syrian peace track would be on the Obama administration's agenda.
Israel has conditioned a deal with Syria on Damascus cutting its ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Clinton will visit Turkey on Saturday, the last stop in a week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe. U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was in Turkey last week and discussed the Syria track.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Clinton on Tuesday. He said he would update her on the Turkish-mediated talks.
"Together we will discuss ways in which we can extricate as many countries in the region from extremism in order to weaken the strength and influence of those countries which support terror and of terrorist organizations in the region," he said.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Sue Pleming, Editing by Adam Entous)