Syria Envoy to Meet U.S. Diplomat in Sign of Thaw in Ties

Syrian ambassador to U.S. Imad Mustafa accepted invite to meet top State Department official on Thursday.

Signaling a possible thaw in relations, Syria's ambassador to Washington will meet a senior U.S. diplomat on Thursday, the highest-level contact between the two nations since the Obama administration took office.

A State Department official said on Tuesday Syrian ambassador Imad Mustafa accepted a rare invitation to come to the department to meet acting head of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, Jeffrey Feltman, who was U.S. ambassador to Lebanon.

"We see this as an opportunity to explore those areas where we have potential for progress," the official told Reuters of the meeting.

State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said last Friday the United States also wanted to discuss Damascus' support for "terrorist groups" and its pursuit of nuclear and nonconventional weaponry.

UN inspectors said last week that graphite and more uranium traces were found in samples taken from a Syrian site that Washington says was an almost built graphite nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in November 2007, and this is expected to be raised by Feltman.

But the meeting also offers a chance to find ways to improve relations as the Obama administration reviews U.S. policy towards Syria, including whether to return an ambassador to Damascus.

The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Syria, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, denies any involvement in Hariri's murder but Washington pointed fingers at Damascus and relations have been particularly sour since then.

Syrian embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini said no reasons were given by the State Department for the meeting but Syria hoped for an end to the "dictation" policies of the past administration of President George W. Bush.

"We hope we will see new policies, a new approach and a new vision over what we had over the past eight years," said Salkini of a possible thaw in ties between the two nations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a British newspaper last week he hoped for better relations and that Obama would send an ambassador to Syria soon.

"Not having an ambassador means a void in influence," said Salkini.

The Bush administration began last year making overtures towards Syria and was reassessing its isolation policy, which included a raft of sanctions against Damascus.

But the White House ultimately decided against a full thaw in ties and left any dramatic shift up to the next president.

Last week, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry, said on a visit to Damascus that there was a chance to change relations with Washington.

But he made clear that Washington wanted Syria to stop providing support to Hamas militants in the Palestinian territories and to the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon.