DAMASCUS (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad held security talks on Wednesday with America’s highest-ranking career diplomat, a day after President Barack Obama pledged to reappoint an ambassador to Syria after a five-year absence.
Under Secretary of State William Burns, the architect of a deal that helped rehabilitate Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, met with Assad along with Daniel Benjamin, a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.
“I have no illusions about the challenges,” Burns said after seeing the president. “But my meeting with President Assad made me hopeful that we can make progress together in the interest of both of our countries,” Burns added.
Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State, will stay in Syria on Thursday for a day of talks with Syrian officials after Burns departs. The intention was “to deepen our dialogue as we move forward,” Burns said.
Under Obama, the United States started talking to Syria’s government, in contrast to a policy of isolation under former President George W. Bush.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria’s foes in Lebanon accused Damascus of involvement, a charge Syria denied.
Syria announced that year that it had stopped cooperation with the United States on what it describes as terrorism suspects following U.S. criticism of Syria’s role in Iraq.
But Syrian officials met twice last year with a U.S. security delegation in Damascus, although Syria is on the U.S. “sponsors of terrorism” list and has good ties with Iran.
The United States wants Syria to stop infiltration of militants to Iraq through the Syrian border, an issue that caused relations to deteriorate until Obama took office.
Washington also wants Syria to rein in members of the Iraqi Baath Party who fled to Syria and are accused by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of encouraging violence in Iraq.
Relations between Washington and Damascus have improved since Obama took office 13 months ago. Diplomats say Washington is hoping to pull Syria away from Iran and get its help in stabilizing neighboring Iraq.
Nevertheless Obama renewed sanctions against Syria last May, accusing it of supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and destabilizing Iraq, with which it shares a long, porous border that has been a conduit for al Qaeda fighters.
Syria and Iran are the main backers of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas and Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and guerrilla group in Lebanon that fought a war against Israel in 2006.
“There is heightened U.S. nervousness about the Hezbollah weapons issue,” one diplomat in the Syrian capital said.
Washington has muted its criticism of Syria’s authoritarian system and the nomination of Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus was seen as a major step in improving ties.
Burns said the nomination of Ford, who still has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, signaled “America’s readiness to improve relations and to cooperate in the pursuit of just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis.”
Syrian and Lebanese media have been reporting for weeks that Obama intended to appoint Ford.
Now deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, he previously served as ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008 and deputy chief of mission in Bahrain between 2001 and 2004.
A pro-government Syrian paper said last week that Damascus had approved a U.S. request to reappoint its ambassador.