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US appoints first ambassador to Syria in five years

While US sanctions remain in place after Hariri assassination, attempt to bypass Syria in regional diplomacy is over with arrival of Robert Ford in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // The US once again has an ambassador in Damascus, after six years with the post left vacant, ending an era in which Washington sought to politically isolate Syria. Robert Ford, appointed as ambassador last June, arrived in Damascus yesterday afternoon. In a statement to the press, the US embassy said his presence represented "a tangible American action to try to find common interests between Syria and the United States, through more regular and direct discussion with the Syrian government and people".

The previous US ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, was pulled out in 2005, after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, a murder widely blamed on Damascus at the time.

Relations between Syria and the US, already longtime enemies in the struggle for primacy over the Middle East, nose-dived as a result, with Washington placing Damascus under a diplomatic and economic siege.

While US sanctions today remain in place, the attempt to bypass Syria in regional diplomacy is now over, and regular government-to-government communications can resume.

"The American project was to isolate and squeeze Syria, which is why they pulled out the last ambassador in 2005," said Khalid Aboud, secretary of the Syrian parliament. "Damascus decided to confront that project and in the end has succeeded; the Americans have changed their views.

"They now understand that Syria has a crucial regional role," he continued. "They also now realise that the path of dialogue is better than the path of laying out obligations, and that the best way is to have direct, unmediated talks."

An experienced Middle East diplomat, Mr Ford will be settling into his new job at a critical moment. Lebanon currently has no government and faces the prospect of renewed unrest over the UN tribunal into Mr Hariri's death.

Members of Hizbollah, the Islamic militant movement, are set to be indicted as early as today for their suspected involvement in the assassination, with the old allegations against Damascus now apparently a thing of the past. It was in an attempt to scrap the UN's murder investigation that Hizbollah last week collapsed the coalition government, led by Rafig's son, Saad Hariri.

Damascus, which backs Hizbollah and opposes the UN tribunal, has long held a significant role in Lebanese affairs and is certain to be a central player in the coming weeks and months as the political crisis in Beirut is played out.

Lebanon, together with Palestine, is a principle area in which Washington and Damascus remain in dispute. Syria has consistently worked to thwart US efforts to prop up a pro-western, Israel-friendly government in Beirut and the Palestinian territories.

Washington, a key ally of Israel - Syria and Israel remain at war - considers Hizbollah and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, to be terrorist organisations and accuses Damascus of destabilising the region.

While the situation in Beirut will probably dominate the region's immediate agenda, Syrian analysts said they did not expect it to be the top priority for Mr Ford.

"Lebanon is important to the US but their regional interests are not limited to that, they are not short term," said Tharbit Salem, a Syrian political commentator. He cited joint interests in seeing Iraq stabilised as being a significant area in which Washington and Damascus could cooperate.

Under President Barack Obama, the US has also been pushing Syria to resume direct peace talks with Israel, despite the recent collapse of the latest US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Syria sees the US as essential if it is to ever win back the occupied Golan Heights from Israel, believing that without real pressure from its superpower ally, Tel Aviv will never return the seized land.

"Ultimately it's in the interests of both Syria and America to have a US ambassador here," Mr Salem said. "It's something that will allow communication. What remains to be seen is whether it will achieve anything."

Mr Obama named Mr Ford to the post of ambassador last February, but Republican opponents blocked his confirmation, saying it amounted to a "reward" for Syrian belligerence. On December 29, Mr Obama bypassed Congress and forced through the appointment, although it still requires congressional approval before the end of this year.



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