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Clinton sending envoys to Damascus

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hillary Rodham Clinton is sending two envoys to Syria, including the White House official who led Jewish outreach during the Obama campaign.

Jeffrey Feltman, an acting assistant secretary of state, and Dan Shapiro, the senior national security council official dealing with the region, will head to Damascus from Israel, where they are accompanying the U.S. secretary of state on her first regional tour in her new capacity. Shapiro guided Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign.

"There are a number of issues that we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria poses,” Clinton said Tuesday at a news conference in Jerusalem with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister. "I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations."

Israel and Syria have been negotiating peace under Turkey’s auspices, in part because the Bush administration did not want to play a role or encourage talks with Syria.

Both Syria and Israel would prefer a U.S. role in the talks, and President Obama has said he favors engagement with Syria.

Feltman met prior to this tour with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian envoy to Washington, in the most senior meeting Moustapha has had with a U.S. official since former President George W. Bush began applying Syria Accountability Act sanctions in 2004.

State Department officials said later that the meeting was substantive and constructive, although issues remained, including Syria’s backing for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, its weapons development and its interference in Lebanon.

The trip by Feltman and Shapiro "is an opportunity to discuss a variety of bilateral issues and regional concerns," a State Department official told JTA.

As an aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Shapiro played a role in shepherding the Syria Accountability Act through the Senate after the bill, initiated by U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), had overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives.

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