Syria, U.S. explore improving ties as Sen. Kerry visits
DAMASCUS - In a sign that U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking better ties with Syria, several U.S. congressmen have passed through Damascus in the last few days, including Sen. John Kerry, who arrived yesterday and met with President Bashar Assad.
The State Department also announced Friday that it had scheduled a meeting next week with Syria's ambassador to the United States to discuss differences between the two countries - the first such meeting in months. Imad Moustapha is to meet with Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in the belief that direct engagement with Syria will advance U.S. interests, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
One topic of that conversation is expected to be a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency stating that additional traces of uranium have been found in samples taken from the site of a Syrian facility Israel bombed in September 2007. Israel says that facility was a nuclear reactor.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the IAEA's findings on Friday and said it expected the organization to pursue its investigation vigorously, including by visiting other sites to which Syria has thus far barred access.
U.S.-Syrian relations have long been tense. Damascus' support for Hamas and Hezbollah has drawn the ire of Washington, which has also accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq. Relations soured further when the Bush administration pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005 to protest Syria's alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
As Haaretz reported last week, the U.S. is expected to appoint a new ambassador to Damascus soon.
The congressional delegations, led by Democrats, are carrying the message that America wants to engage Syria.
Kerry, who heads the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, did not speak after his meetings in Damascus yesterday, but during his stop in Beirut last Wednesday he said the U.S. would renew diplomacy with Syria. In return, however, it expects Syria to change its behavior - particularly on Iraq and Lebanon. Damascus must also alter its ties to Iran and stop backing terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, he said.
"Unlike the Bush administration, that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe we have to engage in a discussion," Kerry said in Beirut. "And so we are going to renew diplomacy, but without any illusions, without any naivete, without any misplaced belief that just by talking, things will automatically happen."
Following Kerry's visit, Assad said he expects the U.S. to abandon Bush's "policy of dictates." The state-owned newspaper Tishrin added that Damascus now expects Washington to take concrete measures, including supporting the peace process with Israel.
Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, described the congressional visits to Damascus as being of extreme importance and depth. But he stressed he was still waiting to see if the visits change the manner of dialogue between us and America.
Besides Kerry, Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman of California went to Syria on separate visits.