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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Obama OKs plan to normalize U.S. ties with Syria

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has approved a State Department plan to send an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year absence.   

On June 23, officials said, the State Department notified the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, of the U.S. decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Damascus. Earlier, Mustapha hailed Obama as representing a change in U.S. relations with Damascus and the Arab world.

Officials said the envoy would probably arrive in the Syrian capital by September 2009 as part of a U.S. effort to restore security cooperation with the regime of President Bashar Assad.

"We are prepared to move forward with Syria to advance our interests through direct and continuing dialogue," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said on June 24.

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"Today, there is real optimism because the two parties realize the importance of improving bilateral relations in order to achieve global peace," Syria's official daily, A-Thawra, said.

Officials said the State Department has sent a team of experts to determine the security requirements for the embassy in Damascus. They said the embassy could relocate in an effort to reduce its visibility and avoid violent anti-U.S. demonstrations.

Kelly said the State Department informed the Syrian embassy in Washington and the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus of the U.S. decision to return its ambassador. The official did not say when the ambassador would arrive in Syria.

"This decision reflects the administration's recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region," Kelly said. "And of course, we hope that they will continue to play such a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region."

In 2005, Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria in wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Assad regime has been linked to the car-bombing in Beirut that killed the pro-U.S. Lebanese politician.

In mid-June, Syria and the United States conducted their first military cooperation talks in at least five years. A delegation from U.S. Central Command discussed security along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

"I know that they have played a positive role in addressing some of our very real concerns about foreign fighters crossing from Syria," Kelly said. "We've had some good discussions with them in those four different visits that we had to Damascus."

Officials said the return of the U.S. ambassador would also facilitate any renewal of Israeli-Syrian peace talks. They said U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, urged Obama to quickly restore diplomatic relations with Damascus in an effort to advance American proposals for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war.

"On an immediate level, the announcement to return an ambassador is tied to Syria's agreement on Iraq security and intelligence sharing," the authoritative blog, Syria Comment, reported.

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