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Will Syria play key role in Obama's Mideast peace efforts?

US envoy Mitchell was in Egypt Thursday, and arrives in Damascus Friday. Syrians hope for a new rapprochement under an Obama administration.

By Julien Barnes-DaceyCorrespondent / June 11, 2009

Syrian women watch a speech given by US President Barack Obama June 4 in Cairo, from a cafe in Damascus. His administration says it is looking for Syria to play a positive role in the region.

Bassem Tellawi/AP

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Damascus, Syria

US envoy George Mitchell is expected to arrive here on Friday in President Obama's most high-profile effort yet to seek rapprochement with Syria – one that could benefit both countries.

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With Mr. Obama pursuing an ambitious Middle East agenda – seeking to withdraw US troops from Iraq, reach an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and counter Iranian nuclear ambitions – the administration says it is looking for Syria to play a positive regional role in meeting these goals. Damascus, meanwhile, has long claimed that it wields important influence in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, as well as with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

"For years we've been hearing accusations from top officials in Washington that the Syrians are the main destablilizers in the region," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "Those who can destabilize can theoretically also stabilize. So Syria can play an important role in helping find solutions to problems in the region."

On Thursday, Mr. Mitchell met with officials in Egypt and Jordan. He reportedly urged Arab nations to reopen Israeli diplomatic missions and take other steps to normalize relations and restart the Israeli-Paliestinian peace process.

On Fricay, Mitchell will be the highest-level US official to visit Syria since the Obama administration came to power promising new regional dialogue.

"This administration is committed to a broad-based comprehensive peace dealing with all the different players in the region," says US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. "And we decided this was an appropriate time for Senator Mitchell to go to Syria."

That marks a radical departure from the Bush administration, which placed Syria under sanctions in 2004, accusing it of encouraging violence in Iraq and Lebanon, supporting terrorism, and fueling regional instability. In 2005, the US ambassador to Syria was withdrawn from Damascus and high-level contact between the two countries was suspended.

But Syrians are wary, still stinging from Mr. Obama's unexpectedly harsh rhetoric in renewing sanctions last month. The country represented an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," the president said.

Having anticipated a more dramatic improvement in relations under Obama, many locals are frustrated at the lack of substantial progress.

"We're not interested in a photo shoot with George Mitchell," says Mr. Moubayed, who has been involved in Syria-US talks. "Engagement needs to be followed by actions."

Syrians wonder: Is change really coming?

There have been some openings of late, including Obama's willingness to allow Syria to buy spare parts for Boeing aircraft despite sanctions. But Moubayed says the essence of American policy has not changed under the new president.

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