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Clinton to meet with Syrian foreign minister in Mideast peace bid

From Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • The Obama administration wants to involve Syria in its Mideast peace efforts
  • U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will meet with Syria's foreign minister on Monday
  • Clinton sees the meeting as "an opportunity to make progress," an official says

New York (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with Syria's foreign minister next week as part of an Obama administration bid to reach a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, State Department officials told CNN.

The officials said Clinton will meet with Walid Moualem on Monday in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The rare meeting comes on the heels of a visit by Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus earlier this month. Although officials stressed the United States still has "serious concerns" about Syrian support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, the visit provided enough common ground for discussions to move to a higher level.

"The secretary would not be meeting with Foreign Minister Moualem if she did not feel it was an opportunity to make progress," one U.S. official said.

Last week in the region Clinton said the United States plans to involve Syria and Lebanon in talks with Israel as part of its push toward the "comprehensive" Middle East peace enshrined in the 2002 Arab peace initiative.

"We've said since the beginning of the Obama administration that we aren't just looking for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. It has to be a true peace between Israel and all of its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon," the official said. "And we've said all along that Syria can potentially play an important role in achieve a comprehensive peace and regional stability."

Clinton and Moualem met briefly in March 2009 on the sidelines of an international donors conference on rebuilding the Gaza strip after the December 2008 Israeli offensive. They spoke by phone earlier this year about improving the U.S.-Syria bilateral relationship.

After eight years of the Bush administration, marked largely by confrontation, the Obama administration has tried to court Syria as a key player in its Mideast peace efforts. In addition to Mitchell, several senior U.S. officials have visited Damascus. Earlier this year President Barack Obama tapped Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years, although his nomination has yet to be been confirmed

During next week's meeting with Moualem, officials said, Clinton will test the waters for a possible resumption of a peace track between Israel and Syria. She will also discuss the peace process during a meeting Friday with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, along with reaffirming support for Lebanese sovereignty.

A Syrian official said Moualem was also invited to Washington later next week for further talks. U.S. officials declined to say who he might meet with, stressing they wanted to see how the Clinton meeting went first.