ABU DHABI // Washington's decision to dispatch an ambassador to Damascus after a four-year diplomatic absence marks a breakthrough in US-Syrian relations, according to Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. "Having an ambassador in Damascus is something that is in the US interest to help promote channels of communications, dialogue and diplomacy with the Syrians," Mr Feltman said on a visit to Abu Dhabi.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his conviction that diplomacy can be used in approaching major, even rogue, Middle East players, to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region. Syria, Mr Feltman said, is one of these players. Speaking in an interview with The National, Mr Feltman emphasised, however, that democracy was "not something soft". "We have some sharp differences on a variety of factors," he said.
The Syrian regional role in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories has been under US scrutiny since the assassination in February 2005 of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. It was also one of several factors that helped improve the security situation in Iraq over the past year, Mr Feltman said. Mr Feltman arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, after visiting Kuwait, at a time of unrest in Iran, stemming from suspicion over the results of the recent presidential election. For now, he said, the US still considered it advantageous to engage the Iranian regime in negotiations on its nuclear file.
"At the same time we have to stand on the side of principles of freedom of expressions, and we're very concerned about the use of violence, intimidation and fear to try to quiet the Iranian people's questioning of the credibility of the election," Mr Feltman said. The Tehran regime has accused the American government of interfering in Iranian affairs, but Mr Feltman rebuked that assertion. "We fully respect Iranian sovereignty, and the Iranian election should be about Iran, not about the United States. Iran wants the respect of the international community, but the first thing they need is to respect their own people."
He said the US would need to monitor the Iranian situation in the coming days to determine how best to balance competing interests. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has made the Middle East peace process its top foreign policy priority, Mr Feltman said. The American and Israeli administrations are still clashing over US demands for a freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In 2003 the Israelis and the Palestinians accepted the "road map" of objectives and obligations.
When asked if the US demand on the settlement freeze was negotiable, Mr Feltman said: "It's clear there are obligations on both sides. Palestinians need to perform a security that stops incitements. And the Israelis need to stop settlement activities including natural growth. "We have a good understanding of both sides' domestic politics, and each side is going to need to address its domestic constituency. But in the end the Palestinians deserve and want a viable state - a state that the Palestinians would be proud to call home. And the Israelis in their state deserve to live in peace and security."
In 2000, at an Arab Summit in Beirut, King Abdullah, crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the time, introduced the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls on Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories in exchange for natural relations with its Arab neighbour countries. This initiative has been adopted by the Obama team working on the peace process. "The spirit of that initiative, I think, should guide us," Mr Feltman said. "All of us have a responsibility to help create that right atmosphere that would lead to successful conclusion and negotiations."
King Abdullah II of Jordan has been chosen to carry an effort on behalf of the Arab leaders involved in this conflict, to work with Mr Obama on the peace process. Mr Feltman urged the Arabs to look for ways to signal to the Israeli public that they do have a chance to live in peace and security in their own state. "A two-state solution is the best and only outcome that meets the demand of the people most involved, the Palestinians and Israelis," he concluded.