WASHINGTON (JTA) — Washington should not limit communication with Damascus over an alleged arms transfer to Hezbollah, a senior U.S. diplomat said.
Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and current assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, testified Wednesday before the House of Representatives subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia in the wake of Zouheir Jabbour, the most senior Syrian official in Washington, being summoned to the State Department over the alleged transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.
Feltman has led the Obama administration’s outreach to Syria.
Feltman was peppered with questions from several lawmakers as to why the United States would seemingly reward bad behavior by Damascus with the appointment of a U.S. ambassador for the first time in five years.
Feltman, while refusing to comment on the Scud missiles in an open setting, adamantly maintained that the appointment of an ambassador was not a reward, and underscored the need for U.S. officials to use all of the diplomatic tools at their disposal to help break up the Syria-Iran relationship.
“He [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] is listening to people like Hassan Nasrallah, he is listening to people like Ahmadinejad," Feltman said. “We need to be making our message to him loud and clear and directly.”
Feltman’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, made the same case Thursday.
"Where we are as of today is that we believe it is important to continue the process to return an ambassador," she told reporters after meeting in Tallinn with her Estonian counterpart. "This is not some kind of reward for the Syrians and the actions that they take, which are deeply disturbing not only to the United States and not just to Israel but to others in the region and beyond. But it’s a tool. It’s a tool that we believe can give us extra leverage, added insight, analysis, information with respect to Syria’s actions and intentions."
Feltman, asked by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) to name “the central issues that need to be solved … that are keeping us in a belligerent relationship,” referring in particular to the Golan Heights and water issues, acknowledged that a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and Syria, would solve some issues.