ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
As we heard in Michele Kelemen's story, Secretary Clinton says that she will soon be sending two envoys to Syria, and to find out what such a move may mean for Middle East peace negotiations we invited Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and also a co-author of the book "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace." Hi, welcome.
Mr. SCOTT LASENSKY (U.S. Institute of Peace): Thank you.
SIEGEL: The two envoys who have been sent are Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro. What can you tell us about that selection?
Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know, one is a State Department official. One is a White House official. So I think it sends a clear unambiguous message that this administration is on the same page - representative of the secretary, representative of the president, two people who are, I think, greatly respected. Ambassador Feltman, also having served in Lebanon, I think reassures Lebanese-Americans as well, who are always weary and watchful about U.S.-Syrian relations, given that Lebanon has suffered at times from Syrian involvement.
SIEGEL: Talking about being on that same page - on that page what the U.S. and Syria have to talk about are just about everything in the region - Iraq, Iran, nuclear proliferation, Israel. What do you think is at the top of the agenda for the U.S.?
Mr. LASENSKY: You know, when it comes to Syria, it's not like our strategic relations with China or Russia, or even Egypt or Israel. Syria and Syrian-American relations are derivative of a whole wide range of issues that are important to the U.S. At the top of the list is Iraq. Iraq has already have a 150,000 troops. Stability in Iraq, stability on the Syrian-Iraqi border, absolutely critical. I put it as numbers one, two, three, four and five.
Mr. LASENSKY: But you know, close - close followed after that would be Israel, the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal on the Golan Heights. Lebanon -keeping Lebanon independent, free from Syrian interference politically. Of course there's the nuclear question. There was an attack by Israel on a facility many suspect is a nuclear weapons development facility about an year and half ago. Syria's relations with Iran. Terrorism - certainly high on the list. Transnational terrorism. But also terrorism vis-a-vis neighboring states, whether it's support for Hamas or Hezbollah, longtime Syrian allies.
SIEGEL: You were in Syria not too long ago. Did you get the impression that a dialogue with the United States is something that the Syrians would attach a great deal of value to?
Mr. LASENSKY: Well, there's no doubt, I think, the Syrian regime is on a charm offensive, one might say, and by receiving our delegation and delegations from the House and the Senate, and clearly the statements of their ambassador here, there's no doubt the Syrian regime, the president in particular, President Assad, wants a better relationship with United States.
There was rhetoric in the past about, well, we don't need the U.S., we don't the West. We can turn to the East. But that's not the case, and they're and telling us that at every opportunity. They want stronger relations with Europe, in terms of economics. In trade, they want a stronger relationship with US. They want to cooperate with us. We have some common interest, whether it's Iraq, a stable Iraq with a strong government in Baghdad that can secure its borders, counter-terrorism questions, peace with Israel, eventually, hopefully.
So, we have common interests and then we also have a lot of friction in relationship there. Relationship has never been easy, but to get back to pragmatic cooperation and modest coordination would be a huge step from where we are now, which is a very raw relationship.
SIEGEL: From watching Secretary of State Clinton so far, do you see marked difference in the US attitude toward countries like Syria, which not too long ago were soon to be on the waiting list for regime change on Capitol Hill.
Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know, it's only few weeks into the administration but I think you've seen some clear differences, which is what I would characterize as a return to the traditional American posture in the region. A posture which suggests that Arab-Israeli peacemaking is important - not just important but that it's interconnected to other conflicts in the region - an idea that we talk even to adversaries. And that we don't take dialog off the table, unilaterally. I think there's some clear difference, and it's not a turn away, it's really a turn back to, I think, what was a very bipartisan approach from the US to the Middle East over many years.
SIEGEL: Well Scott Lasensky, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LASENSKY: Good to be with you, Rob.
SIEGEL: It's Scott Lasensky, who is a senior research associate at the US Institute of Peace.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.