WASHINGTON – A top US official says that indirect Israel-Syria talks were "a positive sign", but stressed that no peace would be possible until Damascus withheld funds and arms from Hizbullah and Hamas.
Acting assistant US secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman, who recently visited Syria along with the National Security Council's director for the Middle East and North Africa, Daniel Shapiro, said during a congressional hearing that the two terror groups were among the subjects discussed in indirect talks.
He told the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia that negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus were a sign that the two countries wanted viable peace.
"There were four rounds of indirect talks between Syria and Israel that took place over the course of the past year that were brokered by Turkey. This is a positive sign of both Syria and Israel wanting to explore with each other how to get to a Syria-Israel track that's viable," he said.
Feltman added that Syria wanted the US to help broker a Syria-Israel "track" that would not come "at Lebanon's expense".
However, Feltman said, in supporting Hizbullah Syria "has tried to have it both ways".
"On the one hand, Syria has been willing to show that it will engage, at least indirectly, with the Israelis, he said. "On the other hand, they are in fact the conduit for the armed shipments to Hizbullah, and also host the Hamas political leaders who have been clear in their rejection of the conditions that would lead to Palestinian reconciliation, a condition that would lead to real Israeli-Palestinian peace."
Feltman added that one of the reasons he and Shapiro had been sent to Damascus "was to start talking about moving on the positive side, moving away from the less constructive behavior that they've been engaging in."
However, one round of talks was not enough to begin "untangling the Gordian Knot" that was Syria's relations with the West, he said.
The assistant secretary also told the hearing that his visit to Damascus had not changed American policy regarding Hizbullah.
"We remain extremely concerned about the role that Hizbullah is playing in Lebanon. The group continues to receive weapons, from Syria and Iran, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701," he said.
"Our position on Hizbullah remains unchanged. It was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997." He added that the US was still demanding that Syria halt all funding for the group.
Feltman responded to concerns regarding US dialogue with Syria and Iran. "I don't believe that engagement is soft," he said. "I don't believe that talking has to be a sign of weakness. Talking is one tool."
He said he had stressed during his visit to Damascus that US policy had not changed simply because it was engaging Syria in dialogue.