Friday, February 27, 2009

Clinton says too soon to say if thaw in Syria ties

WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday it was too soon to say whether there would be a thaw in ties with Damascus, as a senior U.S. diplomat met with Syria's ambassador at the State Department."We have regular interactions with the Syrians as a part of our normal diplomatic efforts," said Clinton of a rare meeting at the State Department between Syrian ambassador Imad Mustafa and acting head of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, Jeffrey Feltman.

"It is too soon to say what the future holds," she added when asked whether the summoning of Syria's ambassador indicated a thaw in frosty ties.

The meeting between Mustafa and Feltman, which took place as Clinton spoke, was the highest-level encounter between the two sides since the Obama administration took office last month and is part of the new team's bid to reach out to its enemies.

The Obama administration is reviewing its relations with Syria as part of its overall policy overhaul.

The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and a decision is expected soon over whether to send one back.

Clinton said she was working hard, as was the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to engage with Israel, the Palestinians and all of its neighbors in the region, including Syria.

"We are going to pursue the commitment that we stated when we appointed our special envoy to try to bring parties together for peace and stability in the Middle East," said Clinton.

Mitchell was in Turkey on Thursday as part of his efforts to jump-start the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process which President Barack Obama has said will be a foreign policy priority of his administration.

Turkey has played a major role in bringing Israel and Syria to indirect negotiations but those talks have been stalled since Israel launched its invasion into Gaza in December.

Clinton is set to embark on her own trip to the Middle East this weekend, including stops in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. Turkish officials said she would also visit Ankara where the Syria-Israeli negotiations will likely be high on the agenda. (Reporting by Sue Pleming; editing by David Wiessler)

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