America is sending its first ambassador to Syria since 2005 in a sign relations are thawing between the countries.
Career diplomat Robert Ford will represent the United States’ interests as it moves toward restored diplomatic relations with the country that borders both Iraq and Israel.
“Ambassador Ford is a highly accomplished diplomat with many years of experience in the Middle East,” a White House spokesman said. “His appointment represents President Obama’s commitment to use engagement to advance US interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people.”
Mr Obama has made changing the United States’ image in the Middle East a priority of his first year.
He travelled to Cairo to deliver a speech on engaging the Muslim world. He has met with Israeli and Palestinians leaders alike at the White House; an agreement between the two, however, has been elusive.
Seeking regional partners to promote that peace, Obama foreign policy advisers last summer said the United States would fill the Damascus post that has been vacant for years.
That announcement was described as an acceleration of Washington’s engagement with the Arabs in the aftermath of Mr Obama’s trip to Cairo.
Syria remains a key to establishing peace with Israel, which still occupies the strategic Golan Heights, captured from Damascus in the 1967 war. The Syrians want a strong US hand in Middle East peacemaking to regain that territory.
Tense relations between Syria and the United States started to improve after Mr Obama took office in January last year.
His predecessor George Bush first imposed the sanctions in May 2004, citing Syrian support for terror, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine US operations in Iraq. The economic and diplomatic sanctions were renewed by the Obama administration in May.
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest at Syrian actions in neighbouring Lebanon. Washington also has criticised Syria and Iran for supporting Islamic militant groups such as the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Ford, a fluent Arabic speaker, currently is deputy chief of mission in the US Embassy in Baghdad.
He was also the ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008.