JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday that she's sending two senior U.S. diplomats to Syria to engage the long-isolated regime as part of the Obama administration's new push for stability in the Middle East.
The decision appeared aimed at cultivating an elusive Israeli-Syrian peace deal and neutralizing Iran's growing influence in the region.
"We don't engage in discussions for the sake of conversation," Clinton said on her first visit to Israel as secretary of state. "There has to be a purpose to them. There has to be some perceived benefit accruing to the United States and our allies."
The talks could lead to a repair of relations with Syria, which hit a new low in 2005 after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated when his motorcade was bombed in Beirut, Lebanon.
After the killing, which many suspected that top Syrian leaders had directed, the Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador from Damascus and refused to receive the Syrian envoy in Washington.
On Sunday, a special U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, began a process that could lead to indicting suspects in the Hariri assassination, including four Lebanese generals who are considered sympathetic to Syria's long-standing claims to rule Lebanon.
The Obama administration's exploratory trip will be led by Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a top Middle East expert with the National Security Council.
Clinton made her announcement amid talks with Israeli political leaders that offered few clues as to how the new U.S. administration will proceed with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
The Obama administration has pledged to push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks aggressively, but it faces a difficult challenge, because Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish Likud Party oppose establishing a Palestinian state.
For that reason, it could be in the interests of Israel and the United States to focus on Syria first. Such an approach could ease the pressure on Netanyahu to secure a deal with Palestinian negotiators and could allow President Obama to make progress on broader Middle East problems.