(CNSNews.com) – A United States envoy was due to hold talks with Syrian officials on Wednesday, amid a flurry of regional diplomatic activity as governments and other parties stake their positions in the face of the Obama administration’s new engagement policies.
The visit by Acting Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman comes a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus to underscore a relationship that previous U.S. administrations have tried, without success, to prise apart.
“Issues of mutual and regional concern” will be on the agenda when Feltman, accompanied by National Security Council senior director Daniel Shapiro, pays his second visit to Syria in two months, the State Department announced.
The Syrian-Iranian axis has long been viewed as dangerous by the U.S. and Israel.
The two regimes support Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and other violent Palestinian factions fighting Israel, and have both been accused of facilitating anti-coalition terrorism in Iraq. Their leading roles as sponsors of terror were reaffirmed in the latest State Department annual terrorism report, released last week.
The Obama administration wants to engage both Iran and Syria, in an effort to resolve issues ranging from the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities to instability in Lebanon and the Syrian-Israeli peace track.
At a joint press conference with Syrian President Bashar Assad Tuesday, Ahmadinejad boasted that “those who one day called Iran and Syria part of the axis of evil now want to develop relations with Iran and Syria.”
“Circumstances are changing rapidly in our favor,” Arab media quoted him as saying. “We are on the road to victory.”
The Iranian leader also reiterated Iranian-Syrian support for “Palestinian resistance,” calling Israelis “destructive microbes” and saying that U.S. forces in Afghanistan were uninvited, unwelcome visitors who should withdraw.
Assad hailed the strategic bilateral alliance, saying it was based on shared principles and interests.
While Sunni Arab regimes tend to be wary of Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran, Syria’s ruling family – members of the Shi’ite Allawite sect – has nurtured close ties with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, splitting with the rest of the Arab world by backing Iran in its long war against Iraq during the 1980s.
President Obama’s stated desire to engage Tehran has triggered anxiety in Arab capitals suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions, particularly amid reports of Iranian attempts to expand its influence in Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Cairo on Tuesday, said the U.S. was not planning to secretly develop a “grand bargain” with Iran and then spring it on its Arab friends and allies.
Speaking to reporters after talks with President Hosni Mubarak, he said there appeared to be “some exaggerated concern” in the region. He pledged that the administration would be transparent in its dealings with Tehran, and conceded that the U.S. outreach so far had not elicited a particularly encouraging response.
From Egypt Gates went on to Saudi Arabia – another historical rival of Iran – where he was expected to deliver the same assurance. Late last month, the administration’s special advisor on Iran, Dennis Ross, took a similar message to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf States.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, characterizing Iran as a threat to both Israel and the Arab world, has begun stressing what he calls an unprecedented opportunity for Jews and Arabs to unite against “the common danger.”
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested Tuesday that the Iran factor could be a catalyst for Mideast peace.
“Arab leaders in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh are actually more worried about Iran today than they are about Israel,” he told the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.
Terrorists want attention too
Other players in the Middle East are also vying for attention.
Damascus-based political leader Khaled Mashaal in a New York Times interview published Tuesday, sent the Obama administration a message that Hamas was ready to be “part of the solution.”
While repeating Hamas’ refusal to recognize “the enemy” Israel, Mashaal said the group was prepared to accept a “two-state” solution – an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel based on 1967 borders – and a truce with Israel lasting ten years. (Israel during the June 1967 Six Day War captured disputed territory including the West Bank, then being occupied by Jordan, and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip.)
Obama is being urged by some U.S. foreign policy veterans and Mideast experts to drop his predecessor’s refusal to deal with both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Assad added his voice to those calls on Sunday, telling a French television network that he was willing to broker contacts between Washington and the two organizations.
“Politics is when you deal with reality,” he said, saying Hamas and Hezbollah were influential and could not be ignored.
The State Department designates both groups as foreign terrorist organizations. The formal U.S. position, reiterated on Monday by State Department spokesman Robert Wood, is that the U.S. will not deal with the two until they “renounce violence and be a productive player in the region.” He urged Syria to use its influence to change their behavior.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has offices in Damascus, is engaged in ongoing unity talks with rival Palestinian faction, Fatah. It refuses to meet Mideast Quartet demands to recognize Israel and renounce violence, and its sustained campaign of rocket attacks against Israeli towns triggered a major Israeli military offensive last winter.
Hezbollah, blamed for numerous deadly terror attacks include bombings targeting Americans and others, has become an increasingly important political player in Lebanon.
It leads the parliamentary opposition and, with its campaign reportedly generously funded by Iran, is anticipated together with its allies to do well in elections in one month’s time.
Hezbollah has recently made diplomatic breakthroughs in Europe, although Washington has so far not followed the European trend of distinguishing between political and military “wings” and agreeing to deal with the former.