Talks 'not bilateral'

 

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after Syrian authorities were implicated in the February 2005  assassination in Beirut of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.

 

Playing down the diplomatic significance of the trip, McCormack said Sauerbrey would be "paired" on the tour with a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

 

"It's not a bilateral mission," he said.

  

But he said Sauerbrey, who handles refugee and migration affairs at the state department, would be authorised to meet with her Syrian  counterparts to discuss the refugee issue.

  

She will also visit Jordan and possibly other countries in the region, he said.

 

Strained ties

 

The administration of George Bush, the US president, accuses Syria of backing anti-US fighters in Iraq and supporting efforts by the  Lebanese Islamic movement Hezbollah to topple the pro-Western government of Lebanon.

  

But in an apparent sudden shift in policy, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, announced this week that she and other US officials would join their Syrian and Iranian counterparts in coming weeks at conferences  on Iraq's future.

 

McCormack has refused to rule out bilateral contacts with Syrian and Iranian officials on the sidelines of those meetings, leaving the door ajar for what would amount to a major switch in Bush's policy of shunning what he considers rogue regimes, such as North  Korea.