Syria is once again at the center of Middle East stability and a potential ally to the United States as a U.S. official encouraged "forward momentum" on peace talks between Syria and Israel following high-level talks in Damascus late Saturday.
In a change of tone after years of animosity with Syria, Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said he did not present Syrian officials with "benchmarks" to meet and exchanged concerns.
Dan Shapiro of the White House's National Security Council attended the meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. The two are the first senior U.S. officials to visit Syria since Jan. 2005.
"We found a lot of common ground. There were no subjects that were taboo ... It is our view that Syria can play an important and constructive role in the region," Feltman said after the meeting.
Asked whether Washington would become involved in suspended peace talks between Syria and Israel, Feltman told reporters that "comprehensive peace" including a deal between the two sides was an objective of the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
"We do want to see forward momentum on the Syrian-Israeli track at the time when the parties are ready for this," he said.
"We want to achieve results. I am sure that Syria will want to achieve results but let's not expect that things are going to change dramatically from today until tomorrow," he said.
He said the talks were "consistent with the message" from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who "have stated the desire to use engagement with all countries in the region in order to address issues of mutual concern."
Syrian state news agency SANA said the two sides had agreed on the "importance of pursuing bilateral dialogue to achieve objectives that serve the common interests of both countries."
In particular, it pointed to "achieving a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East."
Diplomats had expected the U.S. delegation to raise Syria's ties with Iran, as well as Syria's role in Lebanon, its influence over the Palestinian group Hamas and prospects for resuming peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Ties between Syria and the United States deteriorated during the George W. Bush administration, after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, in February 2005.
Damascus denied any involvement, but withdrew its troops from Lebanon two months later, ending almost three decades of domination.
Washington withdrew its ambassador to Syria and stepped up sanctions against Damascus government, which has been on a U.S. list of terrorism sponsors since the 1970s.
Obama, however, has made moves to talk to Syria, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Ankara on Saturday no decision yet has been made on returning an ambassador.
“The importance of this track of the peace effort cannot be overstated, and Turkey has played a very important role,” Clinton said.
Syria formally suspended the indirect Turkish-mediated talks during the invasion, but has not ruled out their resumption, even if a right wing government is formed in Israel.
Feltman was ambassador to Lebanon at the time of Hariri's killing and assumed a high-profile role in supporting anti-Syrian Lebanon politicians to the irritation of Damascus.
A United Nations investigation has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies involvement.
A U.S. official said Feltman would meet French officials in Paris before returning to Washington.
Asked if there might be higher-level U.S.-Syria meetings in the coming weeks, the U.S official said talks were "staying at (the) Feltman level for now."