George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, is set to visit Syria and Lebanon for the first time later this week as part of the Obama administration's drive for Arab-Israeli peace, the State Department announced on Tuesday.
AFP - US peace envoy George Mitchell is to visit Syria for the first time this week as the Obama administration steps up its diplomatic engagement with key regional player Damascus, a senior official said Tuesday.
"As part of the president's commitment to work to advance a comprehensive peace in the region," Mitchell will visit Damascus on Friday and Saturday following stops in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday and Beirut on Thursday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
It will also be Mitchell's first visit to Lebanon.
Officials in Beirut said Mitchell, who is currently in Jerusalem, would arrive in Lebanon with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana following elections that saw a pro-West coalition defeat a Hezbollah-led alliance.
Kelly said Mitchell's trip to Syria and Lebanon is partly a "follow-up" to President Obama's speech in Cairo last week aimed at improving ties with Arabs and Muslims.
He declined to link the timing of the envoy's visit to Damascus with the Lebanon election aftermath, saying only it was an "appropriate time" to make such a trip and the administration rated it a "very high priority."
But a State Department official who asked not to be named said Mitchell, who applied for a visa to Syria weeks ago, preferred to make the trip to both Beirut and Damascus after the elections in Lebanon.
The Obama administration has been cautiously pursuing diplomatic engagement with Syria, which has long had strained ties with Washington, in a bid to promote Arab-Israeli peace.
Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, and National Security Council Senior Director Daniel Shapiro visited Damascus last month.
It was their second visit to the Syrian capital since Obama took office in January pledging to engage with all Middle Eastern countries, including Washington's foes such as Syria and Iran.
Ties between Washington and Damascus worsened sharply after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005 which was blamed on Syria.
Washington recalled its ambassador in February 2005 following Hariri's murder and no decision has yet been taken on his replacement.
Damascus has denied any involvement in Hariri's killing, but withdrew its troops from Lebanon two months later, ending almost three decades of domination.
The United States accuses Syria and its non-Arab ally Iran of giving material support to the radical Palestinian movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel.
It also charges that Syria has turned a blind eye to Islamist militants entering Iraq through its border.
In Jerusalem, Mitchell said Washington wants the stalled Middle East peace talks to resume soon and wrap up quickly.
Mitchell, whose visit comes just days before hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to outline his cabinet's peace policy, sought to play down the rising tensions between the two close allies over Washington's peace drive.
"We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations," Mitchell said.
Date created : 2009-06-09