President Barack Obama Tuesday nominated career diplomat Robert Ford as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years, as he seeks to engage Damascus as part of a wider Middle East peace push.
If confirmed by the Senate, Ford would be the first US ambassador to Damascus since Washington recalled its envoy after Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria.
The White House announcement came on the eve of a visit to Syria by William Burns, a top State Department official, which the administration says will further dialogue with Damascus on "all aspects" of a strained relationship.
Obama has seen his efforts to open dialogue with Iran and broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians founder in his first year in office, and the overture to Syria may be aimed at easing the deadlock.
But analysts say it seems unlikely that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, with a first priority of ensuring its own survival, will be keen to sever links with Iran or make immediate concessions to Israel.
US officials may be keen to increase intelligence cooperation with Syria, though its stakeholding in Lebanon via Hezbollah, the Shiite political and militant movement, will likely prove a long-term impediment to better ties.
The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it picked a new ambassador, and passed Ford's name, as per diplomatic protocol, to Damascus for approval before it was publicly announced.
Ford, currently deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Baghdad, was previously ambassador to Algeria, and has also had postings in Izmir and Cairo in a 25-year career in the US Foreign Service.
Obama apparently paved the way for the announcement on Friday, calling Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to tell him that he strongly supports the effort to bring the killers of his late father to justice.
The previous administration of President George W. Bush recalled the US ambassador from Damascus and put relations with Syria on hold in 2005, following Rafik Hariri's killing.
His death in a massive bomb blast on the Beirut seafront in February of that year was widely blamed on Syria although Damascus has denied any involvement.
An international tribunal based in The Hague was set up by a UN Security Council resolution in 2007 to try suspects in the murder.
A UN commission of inquiry initially said it had found evidence to implicate Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services but there are no suspects in custody.