U.S. calls on Syria to open diplomatic relations with Lebanon
Syria says ready for talks with U.S., but won't heed its orders; State Department urges Syria to open embassy in Beirut.
The U.S. State Department called Tuesday on Syria to abide by the wishes of neighboring countries and open diplomatic relations with Lebanon.
Spokesman Sean McCormack rejected a statement by President Bashar Assad in Russia that he wants a dialogue with the United States but "will not take instructions" from Washington.
McCormack said Syria is under no obligation to follow U.S. instructions but should respond positively to requests from neighbors.
One such request, he said, is for Syria to open an embassy in Beirut. "That would be a signal that they have completely renounced and given up on the idea of getting back into Lebanon," McCormack said.
They could also help Lebanon "by not trying to manipulate the Lebanese political system, not helping Hezbollah sponsor marches in the street, not stand in the way of finding out who was responsible for the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri, and seeing those people brought to justice," he added.
Assad, wrapping up a visit to key ally Russia, was asked by reporters about proposals by a special U.S. panel that the United States should open talks with Iran and Syria.
He said said he was always ready to talk to the U.S., provided the subject matter was appropriate.
"Any dialogue is useful providing you are discussing common interests of two countries but not to discuss other interests and ignore your interests," he said.
Putin, speaking earlier at the Kremlin, said he was concerned about the Middle East moving from one conflict to another and planned to discuss turmoil in Gaza with Assad.
"Unfortunately the situation in the [Middle East] region remains tense," Putin said. "We see that the region is practically developing from on conflict to another and that cannot but concern us."
Assad described his meeting with Putin as "successful and constructive" but gave few concrete details beyond praising Moscow's role in the region and saying it could be a sponsor of a peace settlement.
The Syrian leader declined to comment on Russian arms sales to Syria and rejected as a "fabrication" suggestions that Russian weapons had been provided by Syria to Lebanon.
Syria represents 4% of Russia's annual arms sales, and they purchased $6.1 billion in weaponry from Russia in the past year.
Arms deals between Syria-Russia have come under harsh criticism from the United States and Israel, with Israel alleging that Russian antitank missiles sold to Syria were handed over to Hizbollah for use against Israel in the recent war in Lebanon.
Russian analysts maintain that Syria is interested in acquiring an air defense system aimed at the Israel Air Force.
Syrian sources state they want to upgrade their military, but don't necessarily have the economic means to do so outside of favorable deals with Russia.
A recent resumption of high-level contacts between Syrian and European officials and calls for talks with Damascus by the Washington panel have opened the way for a possible rapprochement between the West and Syria.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has rejected the bipartisan panel's recommendations, saying the price of engaging Syria and Iran was likely to be too high, the Washington Post reported last week.
Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, mainly for backing the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Shi'ite Hezbollah group in Lebanon.