Saturday, March 7, 2009

Getting serious about Syria

Sure, it'd be great if talks between the United States and Syria achieved some kind of positive relationship that rubbed off on Damascus' relations with its own people and its neighbors, particularly Israel. But that's probably way too much to hope for. The question comes up as a result of reports over the weekend of high-level contacts between U.S. and Syrian diplomats in Damascus, according to the Reuters international news service. The first high-level contacts between the two countries since 2005 included meetings involving Jeffrey Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, Reuters said. "We want to achieve results," Feltman said. "We want to see forward momentum on the Syrian-Israeli track at the time when the parties are ready for this." There already appears to have been progress between Syria and Israel since they had considerable indirect contact through Turkey until Israel's recent attack on the Hamas militant group in Gaza, a Syrian client. Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since the 1967 Middle East war in which Syria was expelled from the strategic Golan Heights, but Syria is known to have made entreaties about reacquiring the territory. But the United States has to move extremely carefully in this arena. Syria has a lot of questions to answer about its support for Middle East terror groups -- notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front -- and about involvement, which it denies, in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Syria has been labeled a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States since 1979, and allows Hamas and Islamic Jihad to keep their headquarters in Damascus. Syria claims the groups are legitimate resistance organizations. Syria also must answer questions about its treatment of its own citizens, since one of the allegations in a lawsuit challenging former President George W. Bush's policy on extraordinary rendition is that a detainee was sent to Syria to be tortured.

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