The road to Damascus is apparently filled with both promise and potholes. After a senior American diplomat met Thursday with Syria's ambassador to Washington at the State Department, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha described the two-hour session with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman as "positive and constructive."
But administration officials, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, were more cautious. It was "too soon to say what the future holds," Mrs. Clinton said, when asked today whether the meeting — the highest level since the envoy was called in last April to discuss intelligence related to Israel's bombing of an alleged undeclared Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 — signaled a thaw in the famously strained Syrian-American ties.
Although Ms. Clinton spoke while the meeting was in progress, a State Department spokesman said after the session that the meeting, which he did not characterize as either positive or constructive, was "an opportunity to discuss possibilities in bilateral relations and raise issues of concern that each side has." And he made a point of noting that Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon who had been a vocal champion of that beleaguered country's independence from big brotherly Syria, met with "many officials in the course of his duties." Among them, he pointed out, was a meeting today with the commander of Lebanon's armed forces, to "assure him of U.S. support for Lebanon."
That was obviously a none-too-subtle warning that the Obama administration wanted Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon's affairs. Syrian forces, of course, were in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, and withdrew in the spring of 2005 only after over a million and a half Lebanese protested against the Syrian regime's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in February of that year — protests known as the "Cedar Revolution." Lebanese have long worried that Obama who pledged during the campaign and as president-elect to renew dipolomatic ties with Syria, might sacrifice Lebanon's interests in exchange for, say, Syrian help on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, or in promoting stability in Iraq, or in distancing itself from its close alliance with Iran. Syria has also long supported the militant Shiite Hezbollah, which is poised to do well in national elections this June, and the equally militant but Sunni Muslim group Hamas, both of which Washington sees as terrorist groups.
The Americans were clearly cautious at the meeting today — despite what must have been many cups of coffee. A Syrian official said that there had been a change in substance and tone from Ambassador Moustapha's previous meeting at the State Department last April during the Bush administration. "Last time, they spoke at us. This time, there was no list of demands, no dictation," he said. "Each side listened to the other's concerns."
But even Ambassador Moustapha acknowledged that he and Mr. Feltman had not discussed the return of a U.S. ambassador to Damascus or whether Secretary Clinton would meet with Syria 's foreign minister at the Gaza Donors conference which both are scheduled to attend in Egypt on March 2. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had specifically pressed for the top American envoy's return in an interview with a British newspaper last week. The meeting at Foggy Bottom ended today, as so many meetings there do, with an agreement to meet again. Specifically when and where was left diplomatically vague, which, given the pressures on both sides, must have been seen by some officials in Damascus and Washington as a virtue.