US renews limited contact with Syria

Syria called for an unrestricted dialogue with Washington on Monday as a senior United States official made the highest-level visit to Damascus in two years for talks limited to the Iraqi refugee crisis.

Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees and Migration, discussed the plight of the refugees, who now number about two million among Iraq’s neighbours, including between 600 000 and one million in Syria.

“We told [Sauerbrey] that all the questions are linked in the Arab region and that a comprehensive dialogue is needed on all these questions,” Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said after meeting the US official.

“We can’t find lasting solutions without such a dialogue,” he warned.

Meqdad said Sauerbrey, who left the meeting without speaking to reporters, had been “positive on the manner in which Syria is managing the question of Iraqi refugees. She referred to all the services that are being offered by Syria.”

The US embassy gave no programme for Sauerbrey’s meetings in Syria and it was unclear if she would hold talks with other officials. She has already been to Egypt and will also visit Jordan.

The US State Department has sought to play down the bilateral nature of her talks, stressing she was being accompanied on the Middle East tour by an envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The director of the UN agency’s International Protection Division, George Okoth-Obbo, arrived in Damascus on Saturday but UNHCR officials said he would not be joining the US envoy in her meetings with Syrian officials.

Sauerbrey is the most senior US official to visit Syria since then-deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage in February 2005.

Her visit comes hot on the heels of State Department colleague David Satterfield sitting down with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Arnus at a Baghdad security conference on Saturday.

The US had previously refused high-level contacts with Syria, which it accuses of seeking to destabilise Lebanon and conniving with insurgents in neighbouring Iraq.

The US withdrew its ambassador after Syrian authorities were implicated in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

But in a policy shift, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced last week that she and other US officials would join their Syrian and Iranian counterparts at conferences on Iraq’s future—the first of which was held in Baghdad on Saturday.

President George Bush said on Sunday that Washington now expected to see action from Damascus on US concerns.

“There’s all kinds of ways to measure whether they’re serious about the words they utter,” he said.
“We of course welcome those words. Those are nice statements. And now they can act on them.”

Syria’s official press hailed Sauerbrey’s visit as a vindication of the government’s approach to Middle East peace.

“The visits to Damascus by international officials are a form of public recognition of the solid basis of Syria’s vision,” government daily Ath-Thawra said.

“Putting right the errors committed against Syria requires a roadmap that takes into account Syria’s peace formula,” it added.

The paper referred to Damascus’s insistence that Israel must quit all occupied Arab territory, including the Syrian Golan Heights, as part of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace.

US government spokespersons have insisted that Washington is not ready for a rapprochement with Syria, saying any contacts will deal only with Iraq-related issues.

The European Union, too, is to send its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to Damascus on Wednesday on his first visit in two years.—AFP