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US: Obama to send new ambassador to Syria as Iran falters

25 Jun 2009 1:05 AM

by Lachlan Carmichael

WASHINGTON, June 24 AFP - The United States will send an ambassador back to Syria after a four-year absence, a US official said on Wednesday, as Washington tries to engage with a former foe and revive Arab-Israeli peace talks.

The news comes as Syria's ally Iran, which backs anti-Israeli militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, faces its worst domestic unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"A decision has been made to send an ambassador back to Damascus," a senior State Department official told AFP on the condition of anonymity. "The process, however, will take some time."

The previous administration of president George W Bush had put relations with Syria on hold in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman at the Syrian embassy in Washington, told AFP he could not confirm reports about the United States sending an ambassador back to Syria, but understood that Washington is moving in this direction.

"There has not been an official communique presented to us regarding the appointment of a new US ambassador to Damascus," Salkini said.

"With US officials and non-US officials, our understanding is that this could be happening soon, but there has not been any official communique," he added

"If these reports are true, this is definitely a step in the right direction and definitely a sign of sincerity from the Obama administration about engagement with Syria," said Salkini.

The new White House of President Barack Obama has moved to re-engage Damascus, a key regional player, as it seeks to breathe new life into the faltering peace talks.

"There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that, it helps to have a fully staffed embassy," another US official told the New York Times Wednesday.

As part of his detente, Obama earlier this month dispatched Middle East envoy George Mitchell to Syria to hold landmark talks with President Bashar al-Assad.

After the talks, Mitchell noted his host's "integral role" in Middle East peace.

In response Ath-Thawra, a Syrian government newspaper echoed Washington's overtures, stating: "Today, there is real optimism because the two parties realise the importance of improving bilateral relations in order to achieve global peace."

Ties between the US and Syria deteriorated after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And Washington first imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 over charges that it was a state sponsor of terrorism, and they have been extended several times since.

But the sharp downturn in relations came after Hariri's assassination in 2005, blamed on Syria, and prompting Washington to recall its ambassador to Damascus in February that year.

Damascus has denied any involvement in Hariri's killing, but withdrew its troops from Lebanon two months later, ending almost three decades of domination.

The United States also accuses Syria and its non-Arab ally Iran of giving material support to the radical Palestinian movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel.

It also charges that Syria has turned a blind eye to Islamist militants entering Iraq through its border.

David Ignatius, writing Wednesday in the Washington Post, said the landscape of the region is changing as the clerics running Iran try to crush a popular movement challenging the June 12 presidential election results.

"As the mullahs' grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies," Ignatius wrote.