High-level US-Syrian meeting to improve relations

By: By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer
By: By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. and Syrian diplomats met Thursday in an effort to improve strained ties, though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it was too soon to say whether relations would improve.

Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, met for nearly two hours with Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's top diplomat for the Middle East. The first such high-level session since September came at the request of the Obama administration, which sought to discuss how to mend the relationship and possibly work together.

Moustapha told reporters the talks were "very constructive" and he expected there would be more meetings in the coming months.

"We believe that this meeting has explored possibilities between Syria and the United States to engage on a diplomatic and political level and also to discuss all issues of mutual concern," the ambassador said. "We think this is a first step and we believe there will be many further meetings."

Clinton had described the meeting as routine, and said the administration was committed to engagement in the Middle East and promoting Arab-Israeli peace.

"It is too soon to say what the future holds," she said.

Clinton goes to the Middle East next week and will attend an international donors conference for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is expected to participate, but it is not clear whether he will meet with Clinton.

Last week, the State Department said it had invited Moustapha for the meeting to discuss a range of issues. They include U.S. concerns about Syria's support for anti-Israel organizations that Washington regards as terrorist groups; Syria's alleged nuclear program; its involvement in Lebanon; and its human rights record.

U.S.-Syrian relations long have been tense, particularly since the U.S. ambassador was withdrawn by the Bush administration in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denied involvement but in the uproar that followed was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence.

The United States has criticized Syria for supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria has said it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.

With the Obama administration's blessing, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other U.S. lawmakers visited the Middle East last week and stopped in the Syrian capital.

After meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said there are possibilities for "real cooperation" between the two nations.

Assad has sent signals he wants to work with Washington. He has said he is impressed by President Barack Obama's friendly gestures, but has stressed he is still waiting to see results.


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