London, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the biggest step indicating the United States’ readiness to be open towards Syria, Washington announced this week that Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, will visit the Syrian capital, Damascus, next week as part of a tour of the Middle East that will take him to five countries.
During his tour, Kerry, who was a presidential candidate in 2004, is scheduled to visit Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Syria. He will make a stopover in London on his way back to the United States, as Spokesman for the Committee (Fredrick Jones) stated.
The spokesman for Kerry, Fredrick Jones, confirmed the itinerary of Kerry’s tour hours after the senator met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday morning.
Kerry’s visit to Syria coincides with increasing predictions about the appointment of a US ambassador in Damascus. The former US ambassador was withdrawn in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier, Clinton said that revision of the foreign policy under the Obama administration includes studying the possibility of returning the ambassador to Washington. In her testimony before the committee that met to confirm her appointment as secretary of state, Clinton added that her country looks forward to better relation in the region.
Predictions about the name of the next US ambassador in Damascus have increased, but US State Department sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that no decision has been taken to date on returning the ambassador.
Earlier, news reports indicated that Frederic Hof, an expert of the Middle Eastern affairs and one of the figures who worked on the Mitchell report on peace back in 2001, was nominated for the post. However, Hof said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “The rumors about my appointment as ambassador to Syria are wrong. This post was not offered to me.”
He added: “When I was a student in Syria as part of a US exchange program in 1964, I promised my Syrian friends that I would return one day as US ambassador. Some people will be frustrated to learn that the rumors are wrong while others will feel at ease.”
As part of the West’s openness to Damascus, the British Foreign Office has resumed the procedure of granting entry visas from Damascus. The British Foreign Office suspended this service following tension in relations over the assassination of Al-Hariri.
A decision was taken days ahead of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s visit to Syria to resume the practice of accepting applications for entry visas to Britain from Damascus. In the past, the Syrians had to go to Amman or Beirut to get a visa.
However, visas will be granted after applicants present corroborative documents to a centre outside the British Embassy in Damascus. Afterward, these documents will be sent to the British Embassy in Amman for approval.
The British Foreign Office told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There is no connection between granting visas through a centre outside the embassy and the British-Syrian relations.”
The British Foreign Office added: “It is a sheer technical decision. It has been decided to use Amman as a regional centre for Syria, Iraq, and the occupied territories.” However, the Foreign Office emphasized: “The British Embassy in Syria is fully operational.”