The talks, announced Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her Middle East tour, will focus on relations with Syria, but the big prize sought by engaging Damascus may be altered relations with Iran.
In announcing what she called "preliminary conversations," Mrs. Clinton referred to Syria's influence in the region. The emphasis was on Damascus and not Tehran, but many Middle East experts have long advocated engaging Syria, a key Mideast player, as a way to weaken its dependence on Iran, thereby thwarting Tehran's growing influence in the region.
Even if a full weaning of Damascus from Tehran is unrealistic, engaging Damascus offers potential for pressuring the nonstate actors in the region – Hezbollah and Hamas – that stand in the way of US interests, says Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. "If by engaging Syria you can encourage a peace accord between two interested state actors, Syria and Israel, you force very difficult choices on Hezbollah, and … Hamas would be significantly weakened."
The move continues the Obama administration's shift away from the ideological bent of the Bush White House to a more pragmatic foreign policy. With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process dormant and the international effort to halt Iran's nuclear program stalled, engaging Damascus could be a way for the US to make progress on several goals. A Syria-Israel peace accord, or addressing Syria's role in Lebanon, for instance, may help crack open the region's hardest nuts.
The "preliminary conversations" with Damascus will held by White House diplomat Daniel Shapiro, a member of the president's National Security Council, and Jeffrey Feldman, acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs.
Mr. Feldman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, was an assumed target of a January 2008 car bomb that hit an embassy vehicle, killing three people. The US suspected Syria of involvement in the bombing, as it did of the 2005 Beirut bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The US recalled its ambassador to Syria after Mr. Hariri's death and hasn't sent an ambassador back.
Mideast experts say it makes sense to reach out to Syria for a number of reasons. Reaching a Syria-Israel peace accord over the disputed Golan Heights, while not "low-hanging fruit," is plausible in President Obama's first term, says Mr. Miller. That, in turn, would begin to "realign the region's architecture" in a way that ultimately could include Iran.