Peace envoy Mitchell to Damascus?

Peace envoy Mitchell to Damascus?

While all eyes are on Obama’s address to the Muslim world from Cairo tomorrow, plans are afoot for U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to head back to the region as early as this weekend. While his itinerary is not final, Mitchell is expected to travel to Israel, as well as possibly to Syria.

"The itinerary and specific potential stops are still very much under discussion," a senior U.S. official said Monday of the possible Damascus stop.

Another official said he was "95% sure," but that nothing was finalized. What would be the purpose of the trip? Broadly, "the president is committed to comprehensive peace," the official explained. "Syria is one of the parties. It therefore makes sense for Mitchell to start engaging them on comprehensive peace."

"We want to be engaged with Syria. We want to see what is possible," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday, while not confirming any specific trip.

With Lebanese elections this weekend, it’s assumed Mitchell wouldn’t touch down in Damascus before then. Though they’ve opened embassies in each other’s countries, relations between Syria and Lebanon remain tense.

The main purpose of Mitchell going to Damascus is likely to see if Syria can be more helpful on Hamas, says former Defense Department Levant advisor David Schenker, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Mitchell is the Arab-Israeli peace guy," Schenker told The Cable. "He is looking for Syria to take tangible steps … of influencing Hamas." The Syrians leaked the fact that Mitchell had applied for a visa three weeks ago, Schenker added.

U.S. Central Command will also send a military delegation to Syria in the coming weeks, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, to discuss Iraq with Syrian officials.

The Obama administration has twice sent Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and NSC Senior Director for Middle East issues Daniel Shapiro to Syria; several other Congressional delegations have gone to Damascus as well. The United States also, for the first time in six years, sent officials to attend Syria’s National Day celebrations in Washington last month. When Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha ended up arriving late, the U.S. delegation, led by Feltman — a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, regularly described derisively in the Syrian press as a pro-Lebanese neoconservative — ending up somewhat comically welcoming him to his own country’s national day celebration, held at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.

While the stepped-up visits and meetings are interpreted hopefully by some as signs of imminent rapprochement, by and large, Washington Middle East hands say, the Syrians overestimated how quickly Washington would be rushing to their doorstep. The Obama administration has apparently been underwhelmed by Syrian actions to date, and has been taking a more go-slow approach, one that demonstrates greater willingness to engage while articulating the same basic requests of Damascus — including curbing Syria being used as a transit point for insurgents going into and out of Iraq, and as a safe haven for extremist groups — that were made repeatedly during the Bush years. Syria watchers note that the Obama White House renewed sanctions against Syria for another year the day after Feltman and Shapiro last visited Damascus.

In a May 8 letter notifying Congress of his decision, Obama explained he was renewing sanctions because Syria is engaged in "supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq."

Mitchell and his deputy Frederic Hof both have some experience with Syria. (One of the lines on the map on the disputed border between Syria and the Israel-held Golan Heights is apparently called the Hof line.) A former lieutenant colonel who was tasked by the Defense Department to write a report on the 1982 Beirut Marine barracks bombing, Hof later served as the director of field operations for the 2001 Sharm El-Sheikh (Mitchell) Fact-Finding Committee. Before joining the Mitchell mission this spring, Hof published a study (.pdf) mapping Syrian-Israel peace prospects for the US Institute of Peace.

UPDATE: Mitchell’s trip is from June 7 to June 15, and will also include a stop in Lebanon, a former government Middle East hand says.