WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is assessing its isolation policy of Syria in the final months of the Bush administration but is unlikely to return an ambassador to Damascus any time soon, said U.S. officials and experts.
A senior U.S. official said there were talks on how best Washington could “influence” Damascus, particularly following the recent rapprochement between France and Syria, with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus last month.
“We are seeing if there is some advantage in how we reconfigure ourselves diplomatically,” said the senior official, who asked not to be named as the issue is sensitive.
He told Reuters late Friday that Washington’s move came amid some “encouraging signs” by Syria, such as its help in brokering the election of Lebanon’s president and decision to have diplomatic ties with the neighbor it dominated militarily for nearly three decades.
In a sign of a possible thaw, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly at the end of last month — their third meeting in 18 months.
Moualem told Dubai-based channel Al-Arabiya his talks with Rice were “positive” and “an introduction to dialogue.”
Rice’s staff say she pushed him on several areas — Syria’s ties with Iran, border security with Iraq, their “actions” in neighboring Lebanon, the harboring of Palestinian extremist groups, as well as the slow pace of human rights reform.
The State Department’s lead diplomat on the Middle East, David Welch, followed up with a lengthy discussion with Moualem in New York on Monday.
“We are looking for ways to improve and make more effective our effort to get them to change their behavior,” said the senior official of both Welch and Rice’s talks.
U.S. relations have been particularly frosty with Syria since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which Washington says Syria was likely involved in.
Washington’s tactics have been to isolate Syria with a raft of sanctions and to blame Damascus for stoking up violence in Iraq by allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders. Syria is also on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Several analysts and diplomats say pressure is also coming from the Pentagon to have better ties with Syria, sensing this would ease tensions in the region, particularly on the border with Iraq. Syria denies it is stoking up violence in Iraq.
But the White House appears less enthusiastic about a shift in Syria policy, underscored by President George W. Bush’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly when he said Syria, along with Iran, continued to sponsor terrorism.
Asked whether there were moves to have closer ties with Syria, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined comment.
A quiet review may be taking place at the State Department of how to deal with Syria, but U.S. officials say there are no plans to boost U.S. diplomatic presence in Damascus and return an ambassador there who was recalled after Hariri’s killing.
There are also no plans to send Rice on a “peace mission” to Syria and join what Washington sees as a “cavalcade” of recent European visitors to Damascus, including Sarkozy.
Part of the move to reexamine Syria policy is also to lay the groundwork for the next administration, either led by Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama.
“They want to get involved now so that it does not look like a reversal,” said Syria expert Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
“The time was right a long, long time ago to do this ... the policy of isolation has not worked,” he added.
Washington is also closely watching indirect talks mediated by Turkey between Syria and Israel and judging when the time might be right for U.S. intervention.
Rice, who is mediating Palestinian statehood talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, raised this in her meeting with Moualem, telling reporters afterward: “The United States has always said that at the time that it would be helpful, the United States would of course be willing to play a role.”