DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – An Obama envoy in Syria to try to repair strained relations assured the government in Damascus Thursday that the U.S. is committed to pursuing a comprehensive Middle East peace that would include the Syria-Israel track.
The visit to Damascus by Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s top Middle East envoy, coincided with talk of a new U.S.-backed approach to revive peacemaking between Arab nations and Israel.
“We came here today as part of President Obama’s commitment to use diplomacy, to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap, and to see where we can try to work together to bridge the differences that remain in some of our policies,” Feltman said.
He was accompanied by White House official Daniel Shapiro, both visiting Damascus for the second time since March. Their trip is part of the Obama administration’s outreach to nations shunned by former President George W. Bush, including Syria’s close ally Iran.
After meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, Feltman said he conveyed “President Obama’s sincere commitment to pursue Arab-Israeli peace on all tracks including on the Syria-Israel track.”
Syria held indirect talks with Israel last year mediated by Turkey. But the discussions were halted during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December and January. Syria has since said it was ready to resume indirect talks with Israel’s new hard-line government as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
But drawing Syria into a broader Middle East peace effort presents the U.S. with a significant challenge. Despite some signs that the country is interested in engaging with Washington after being shunned by the Bush administration, its alliance with Iran could present problems.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest Syrian actions in neighboring Lebanon. Washington has criticized Syria and Iran for supporting Islamic militant groups such as the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The U.S. also has accused Syria of not doing enough to stop the infiltration of militants to fight U.S. and allied forces in neighboring Iraq.
Syria is Iran’s closest Arab ally and the U.S. accuses the Tehran regime of seeking nuclear weapons. Iran denies it.
On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus, where he and the Syrian president reaffirmed their support for “Palestinian resistance,” a defiant message to the U.S. and its Mideast allies. The Iranian president also met with Palestinian militant groups headquartered in Damascus, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Before meeting the American envoys on Thursday, al-Moallem said Syria was still “testing the American intentions toward Syria.”
Both Israel and U.S. Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have expressed concerns about Washington reaching out to Iran for a dialogue, saying Tehran is a destabilizing force in the Middle East.
Jordan’s king Abdullah II said Wednesday a new “combined approach” under discussion with the U.S. would have Israel, Syria, Lebanon and other nations sitting down together to try to resolve the decades-old Middle East conflict. The idea is the latest indication that the Obama administration is trying to build on the shared interest of its Arab allies and Israel in blunting the threat from Iran.
As part of the new strategy, Arab diplomats said this week that the U.S. has asked the 22-member Arab League to amend a 2002 peace initiative to make it more palatable to Israel. The plan offers Israel collective Arab recognition, peace and normal relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territory it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war, the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Several Arab diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said this week that the Americans are asking Arab nations to drop demands for a right of return for Palestinian refugees and agree to either resettle them in the host countries or in the Palestinian territories.
Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo Thursday rejected the request, said Jordan’s foreign minister.
“The ministers renewed their (countries) commitment to the initiative as it is without change,” Nasser Judeh said.
In Damascus, al-Moallem also publicly rejected the idea before meeting with Feltman and Shapiro.
“I don’t see any justification for amending this initiative,” he told a news conference. “Is it logical that with every new Israeli government that Arabs would concede and put forth a new plan and new concessions under the slogan of a comprehensive plan?”
Israel initially rejected the initiative when it was first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002. It was relaunched at a 2007 Arab League summit, and in the past year, Israel has said the initiative could be a starting point for discussions.