U.S. Embassy officials were not available to comment. Last week, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem confirmed that the U.S. State Department had passed the name of a potential nominee to Syria, but he refused to identify the individual tapped by the Obama administration. «The United States has nominated an ambassador. This is an American sovereign issue and it is Syria’s right to study the nomination,» Mouallem told a press conference. Ford, who speaks fluent Arabic, served previously as the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008, and is considered to be an expert in Mideast affairs. The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Damascus since President Bush recalled Margaret Scobeyin from the post in the wake of Hariri’s Feb. 14, 2005 assassination in a massive bombing in Beirut that also killed 20 others. Syria’s foes in Lebanon accused Damascus of being behind the bombing. Syria has denied any involvement. For Syria, the return of an American ambassador is a welcome gesture that signifies Washington’s recognition that Damascus can potentially help ease violence in Iraq, stabilize Lebanon and solve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syrian leaders have urged the West to embrace their country as a full partner in the quest to end the myriad problems facing the Middle East. Some observers, however, remain skeptical, cautioning that the re-appointment of a U.S. is an important step, but not likely a solution. In an opinion piece for «The National of Abu Dhabi,» veteran Middle East analyst Michael Young weighed in on the issue. «The Syrians know that Ford’s clout at home will be relatively limited, and that he will have to pass through a man greatly disliked in Damascus; the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon at the time of the Hariri assassination,» wrote Young. «Ford’s appointment took more than a year in coming, a long time when considering that President Barack Obama made engagement of Syria and Iran a centerpiece of his foreign policy campaign promises,» Young wrote in «The National of Abu Dhabi,» adding: «The relationship will improve, but Syria is unlikely to regain the prominent role it had in American regional calculations during the 1990s unless it gives in return.» Mitchell’s visit to Syria, the third since he was appointed as President Obama’s envoy to the region, was to pass along the name and discuss how to re-launch the long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Syria insists the promise of an Israeli withdrawal from the disputed Golan Heights must be a precursor to any renewed peace negotiations between the two countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently rejected the notion of a withdrawal from the territory seized by the Jewish state during a week-long war in 1967. Since taking the oath, President Obama has cautiously sought to improve ties with Syria, and U.S. lawmakers have made a flurry of visits to Damascus. Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, a leading figure in Syrian foreign policy, also visited Washington. Arab diplomats suggest that a Syria-Israel peace deal might represent a slightly more attainable goal for the Obama administration in the region — certainly when compared to the prospects of a breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Israel and its chief ally, the United States, want Syria to cool its ties with Iran and to stop supporting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, and Lebanon’s own Hezbollah movement, and help sideline them as armed players. The improving relations between Washington and Damascus may also yield intelligence gathering benefits for the Obama administration. Indeed, Seymour Hersh wrote in an article in the New Yorker last week that the Syrian secret services have already resumed cooperation with the CIA and Britain’s MI6. U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns, an architect of a 2003 deal between the U.S. and Libya that helped bring some degree of credibility back to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, will visit Syria on Feb. 17, according to Western diplomats.

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