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Thursday, March 01, 2007 

Senior US State Department official to visit Syria - mending the US-Syria relationship

Twice in one week.

You wait years for the US to talk to Syria, then you get two promises of discussions in one week.

First, they announce a conference in Iraq, to be attended by both countries in two weeks. And now, a senior US State Department official is visiting Syria.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, will discuss the Iraqi refugee crisis with the Syrian government. She has previously supported dialogue with Syria: "I think that anytime that you can get parties talking to each other that something constructive has a likelihood of coming out of it."

Syria is home to one million Iraqi refugees, and has recently tightened its entry requirements, prompting the UN to call on the world to help Syria deal with its migrant community.

President Bush recalled his ambassador to Damascus two days after the Hariri killing. The embassy remains open, but Bush has blocked anyone at the embassy from talking to Syrian officials.

"Her visit is a way of saying we appreciate that Syria is permitting so many Iraqis to stay there and give them at least a safe place to be. That's an important gesture," says Dawn Calabia , a senior adviser at Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group.

It comes just weeks after Republican Senator Arlen Specter (from the same political party as Bush) visited Damascus - when he returned he told Bush that talking to Syria about the refugee issue would be a good way of rebuilding the US-Syria relationship.

Interestingly, today's announcement was accompanied by the following message: "...according to a State Department official, who asked to speak anonymously because he was not authorized to talk publicly on the issue." A disclaimer often used by Syrian officials.

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