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White House denies Syria appointment

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The White House issued a hedged denial that it had named an ambassador to Syria.

Leaks from Damascus have suggested that Robert Stephen Ford, currently the U.S. deputy ambassador to Iraq, was named to the post.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a Feb. 11 news briefing that he would check into the story. A one-line addendum to the briefing transcript sent later that day to reporters read simply: "Syria: We have not formally nominated an Ambassador."

A formal nomination would have been announced through a White House letter to the Senate; the use of the word "formal" in the statement suggested that such a nomination may be under consideration. Reports from Syria have said that the Assad regime has approved the choice.

The Obama administration has emphasized outreach to Syria among other "rogue" nations, but also has extended sanctions and other punitive measures imposed by its Bush administration predecessors. Bush withdrew the U.S. ambassador in 2005 after Syria was seen as responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a reformer.

The United States has conditioned normalization of relations on Syria ending its interference in Lebanon and Iraq, dropping its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups and suspending its weapons of mass destruction programs.

Since Obama assumed office, a number of senior U.S. officials have visited Syria to explore better relations. The most senior such envoy, William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, is scheduled to meet Feb. 17 with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

"His trip to Syria reflects our continued interest in furthering dialogue with the Syrian government on all aspects of our bilateral relationship," a State Department statement said of the Burns visit.

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