John Kerry To Visit Syrian Capital

This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.

(CBS)
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will visit Syria next week for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, the latest move by the Obama administration to improve relations with this Middle East nation.

Former President George W. Bush imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria in 2004 — primarily as punishment for Damascus' support of the Islamic militant movements Hamas and Hezbollah — which he then extended during his last year in office.

Washington's ambassador to Syria was withdrawn following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. Damascus has denied accusations that it was involved in the killing.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, with which Syria shares a border, also created a deepening rift, with the Bush administration accusing Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq.

"Senator Kerry, like the rest of U.S. delegates arriving in Damascus, is so welcome," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani told CBS News on Thursday. "We have always called for deep dialogue with Washington to put our relations on the right track, which would serve bilateral interests, security and stability."

"We are hoping that through such visits a new phase will start between the two countries," she added.

Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones confirmed the visit Wednesday and said the senator would be part of a congressional delegation stopping in both Israel and Syria, as "part of a continuing dialogue he's had with the Syrian government."

The Syrian President has made it clear on several occasions that, "dialogue with Washington has started in a serious manner through personalities who are close to the administration."

Kerry's trip will comes on the heels of the Obama administration giving a rare authorization for the U.S. to sell Damascus plane parts to repair two aging Boeing 747s — despite Washington's trade sanctions.

Kerry, who visited Syria in December 2006 along with fellow Democrat Sen. Christopher Dodd — in spite of objections from the Bush administration — has always been in favor of engaging Assad in Middle East diplomacy.

Although Obama's new Middle East envoy George Mitchell excluded Damascus from his recent regional tour, Assad's talks with a U.S. congressional delegation headed by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) last weekend, and another visit to the Syrian capital this month by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, (D-Calif.), were clear signs of a thaw in relations.

Damascus, which has great influence over two of Israel's main enemies — Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, and Hamas, whose leaders are based here in Damascus, has indicated that it seeks no further quarrel with Washington, even saying it would like the new administration to mediate stalled Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Syria suspended its indirect talks with Israel to protest the Jewish state's three-week military operation in the Gaza Strip aimed at Hamas militants. The assault left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, half of them women and children, and some 5,000 more wounded.

Neither side has ruled out a resumption of the talks, which focused on the future of the occupied Golan Heights.
  • George Baghdadi

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