x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

US to meet Syrian leaders

American envoys head into Syria to start talks with the leadership, as part of a new approach to the Middle East.

Two senior US envoys were set to meet Syrian leaders today as Washington pursues its new policy of engaging with all countries in the Middle East, even its long-time foes. Washington's overtures to Damascus are in line with the policy of new US President Barack Obama to engage states in the region, Jeffrey Feltman said in Beirut on the eve of the trip. "The president has said he wants to sustain in principle engagement with all states in the region and that includes Syria," he said.

Mr Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon who is acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is accompanied by Daniel Shapiro, senior Middle East and North Africa director at the National Security Council. The pair expect to discuss a "long list" of concerns Washington has with Syria, the key ally of US arch-foe Iran, on the first high-level US trip in four years. "Our trip to Syria ... is an opportunity for us to start addressing these concerns and using engagement as a tool to promote our objectives in the region," Mr Feltman said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Israel this week on her maiden tour of the Middle East that the envoys would hold "preliminary conversations" with Syrian officials. Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria four years ago following the assassination in Beirut of Lebanon's ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, whose murder in a massive bomb attack was blamed on Syria. Damascus denied any involvement in the February 2005 killing, but two months later withdrew its troops from Lebanon, ending almost three decades of political and military domination over its neighbour.

Syria's President Bashar al Assad, who returned to the international fold last year with a visit to Paris, has repeatedly called for a dialogue with Washington, describing the United States as a key referee in Middle East peace negotiations. Syria held Turkish-brokered indirect peace talks with Israel last year but suspended them during Israel's three-week war on the Gaza Strip in December and January. * AFP