Jeff and Dan hit Damascus


We’ve reported that  Hillary Clinton is sending two top Middle East policy figures to Syria, the highest-ranking such delegation in four years (Richard Armitage, about to complete his term deputy secretary of state, was the last senior official to visit, in January 2005.)

Folks who are skeptical of engagement with Syria are pleased with the choice of emissaries: Dan Shapiro, the top officer at the national security council handling relations between Israel and its neighbors; and Jeff Feltman, an acting assistant secretary of state.

Feltman was ambassador to Beirut in 2005, when the United States and France led the international effort that forced an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Blogs have buzzed with reports of veiled threats against Feltman from Syria and Hezbollah.

Shapiro, as chief aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), played a role in shepherding the Syria Accountability Act through the Senate, after the bill – crafted by U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y) – had already been approved by the House.

Here’s how Barry Rubin of the Gloria Center puts it:

Here’s a great case of how politics works. The Obama administration sends to Syria two diplomats to talk, bad news. But they stop off in Beirut first and consult with Lebanese who want their country to be free of Syrian domination. Good news. And the leading diplomat is someone known for his antagonism to Syria dominating Lebanon. Good News.

So we have to evaluate carefully each item of news and get it right.

Not everyone reads as much into the mission: People who know Shapiro and Feltman say they are consummate professionals who carry out policy as it is written. Some diplomats – say, Dennis Ross or Richard Holbrooke – come to a job with enough latitude to introduce their own beliefs (to a limited degree) into their diplomacy. Not so Shapiro and Feltman.

Feltman’s already had a meeting with Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha that both sides have described as constructive. On the other hand, during the meeting, Feltman emphasized that all the issues that got Syria sanctioned remain in play: backing for Hmas and Hezbollah, continued interference in Lebanon, developing weapons of mass destruction.

Here‘s how Clinton put it:

Yes, we’re going to dispatch a representative of the State Department and a representative of the White House to explore with Syria some of these bilateral issues. We have no way to predict what the future with our relations concerning Syria might be. Again, we don’t engage in discussions for the sake of having a conversation. There has to be a purpose to them. There has to be some perceived benefit accruing to the United States and our allies and our shared values. But I think it is a worthwhile effort to go and begin these preliminary conversations.

In any case, the dovish pro-Israel groups have weighed in, and they like it. It was good timing tor the Israel Policy Forum  – the announcement came the day its senior policy adviser, Tom Dine, is in Damascus, gathering assessments himself.

Israel Policy Forum (IPF) enthusiastically applauds the announcement today by Secretary of State Clinton that the Obama administration will send senior officials to Syria to begin discussions with the Assad government.

IPF has been in the lead calling for a new approach to U.S.-Syria relations for many months. We welcome this announcement as yet another indication that the United States is prepared to engage in Mideast diplomacy in a serious and deliberate manner. 

Just as Secretary Clinton said the U.S. approach to Iran would be “with eyes wide open,” so too should our approach to Syria.

Successful talks between the United States and Syria would enable the U.S. to become meaningfully engaged in Israeli-Syrian peace talks, end or greatly reduce Syrian backing of Hezbollah and Hamas, and greatly reduce Iran’s influence on Syria. Achieving these goals would severely diminish the abilities of Iran and the terror groups it supports to disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


Recently, IPF Senior Policy Advisor Tom Dine, who is in Damascus this week meeting with Syrian officials, wrote on IPF’s blog, ‘It is time for days of warmth in a normal U.S.-Syrian relationship.’

IPF welcomes the Obama administration decision and will work to ensure that it enjoys widespread support within the American Jewish community and the U.S. Congress.

And here’s Americans for Peace Now’s Ori Nir

The visit is good news. After eight years of the Bush Administration’s misguided policy of non-engagement, the time has come for the U.S. to open a new chapter in its relations with Syria.

APN has long argued that America should embrace a smart approach to relations with Syria, founded on diplomatic engagement.  While there are many concerns about its regime, Syria plays a key role with respect to stability in the region and Israel’s security.  U.S. engagement with Syria – both on bilateral U.S.-Syria issues and in support of Israel-Syria negotiations – is critically important in determining whether the role Syria plays in the future will be positive or not.

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