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US courts Syria as linchpin to altered relations with Iran

Clinton says talks will begin this weekend.

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The Obama administration is taking the first step toward fulfilling the president's pledge to talk to America's adversaries by launching discussions with Syria, beginning this weekend.

The talks, announced Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her Middle East tour, will focus on relations with Syria, but the big prize sought by engaging Damascus may be altered relations with Iran.

In announcing what she called "preliminary conversations," Mrs. Clinton referred to Syria's influence in the region. The emphasis was on Damascus and not Tehran, but many Middle East experts have long advocated engaging Syria, a key Mideast player, as a way to weaken its dependence on Iran, thereby thwarting Tehran's growing influence in the region.

Even if a full weaning of Damascus from Tehran is unrealistic, engaging Damascus offers potential for pressuring the nonstate actors in the region – Hezbollah and Hamas – that stand in the way of US interests, says Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. "If by engaging Syria you can encourage a peace accord between two interested state actors, Syria and Israel, you force very difficult choices on Hezbollah, and … Hamas would be significantly weakened."

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