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Syrian Representatives “Gratified” By US Reception

A Syrian delegation visiting Washington this week to ramp up diplomacy efforts with the United States expressed satisfaction with their visit, despite an apparent snub by the US State Department.

Joshua Landis, co-director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Syrians “were gratified by the warmth” with which they were received in Washington, and were encouraged that “people are eager to move forward” in improving relations.

The delegation was led by Samir al-Taqi, a prominent intellectual and doctor who has advised Syrian prime minister Naji al-Otari on medical affairs, the other members being journalist and academic Sami Moubayed and economist Samir Saifan, both of whom are on good terms with the Syrian authorities.

The three-man delegation visited Washington think tanks and members of Congress, but a plan for a meeting with a State Department official was turned down at the last minute.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on July 23 that there would be a meeting with the Syrians, but the following day he told a press conference that this would not take place because of a conflict in the schedule.

Washington's highest-level Middle East diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, had offered to meet the delegates.

One Syria expert said the State Department may have been concerned that the delegation was “unofficially official” and that a meeting could unintentionally signal a move towards diplomatic relations. Gallegos stressed earlier in the week that the proposed meeting would not mean relations with Damascus had improved.

The visitors were brought to Washington by Search for Common Ground, an American non-government organisation that promotes conflict resolution. Their meetings were mostly organised by Thomas Dine, a former director of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. Landis reported that AIPAC also cancelled its meeting with the Syrians.

Riad Daoudi, a legal adviser to the Syrian government who is leading the indirect negotiations with Israel, conducted via Turkey, was originally part of the delegation but pulled out earlier this week.

Analysts said they were not surprised that the State Department decided not to meet the Syrians, speculating that high-level neoconservatives who favour isolating Damascus may have pulled the plug.

David Bender, a Syria expert at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said, “In Syria’s eyes, this confirmed that there is not going to be any progress until 2009”, when a new US president assumes office.

Landis agreed that Bush administration officials “don’t really have their hearts” in engaging with Syria.

A writer and political analyst in Damascus who asked to remain anonymous said the country was keen to engage with the US following its success in improving its relations with France. But he said the US was reluctant to tell “the world that Syria is a good member of the international community again and that it is starting to have relations.”

The Bush administration is aware that Damascus wants a better relationship, “but won’t give it to Syria that easily”, he said.

Omran al-Zabi, a Damascus-based lawyer and political analyst, said relations between the two countries could only improve if the Washington “plays a constructive role as an honest mediator in the [Israeli-Syrian] peace process”.

Landis argued that the US should engage with Syria now so as to push the peace process forward while it still has momentum. Syria and Israel need US help to resolve sticking-points such as Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for the Palestinian group Hamas, and Syrian demands for land and water, he said.

A new US president is unlikely to address foreign policy issues immediately after taking office, and if nothing happens now, the peace process is likely to stay stagnant or even roll back, Landis said.

“A lot can happen in a year,” he warned.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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