Kerry Meets With Syrian President

Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations committee, went into immediate talks on Saturday with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to encourage him to curb support for Islamist militant groups in return for a new policy of dialogue with the Obama Administration.

(AP Photo/Ahmad Omar)
The Massachusetts Democrat, who is also set to meet with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and other officials, arrived in the Syrian capital for a two-day visit, the last leg of a five-stop regional tour that has taken him to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. He also paid a surprising visit to the isolated, battle-scarred Gaza Strip, the first in nearly a decade by a U.S. lawmaker since the second Palestinian uprising broke out.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, (D-Calif.), also arrived in the Syrian capital earlier in the day, to discuss how both countries can have better ties.

In a further sign of efforts in Washington to re-engage diplomatically with hostile regimes, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha was set to meet with Jeffrey D. Feltman, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs next week, at Feltman's request.

"The upcoming meeting could be a chance to put all differing issues for discussion at the table," according to a U.S. diplomat in Damascus.

"The concerns include Syria's support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria's pursuit of nuclear and nonconventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon, and a worsening human rights situation," he added.

The two separate trips come on the heels of the Obama administration giving a rare authorization (despite Washington's trade sanctions) to sell Damascus plane parts to repair two aging Boeing 747s, in addition to allowing the transfer of funds from the United States to a Syrian charity.

Under President Bush, the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The United States had also accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria has said it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.

Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.

Relations deteriorated after the U.S. Air Force bombed a Syrian village near the Iraqi border in October 2008, killing eight civilians, including four children.

Syria strongly condemned the attack and summoned American and Iraqi envoys in protest of the deadly operation. Syria also closed a Damascus-based American school and a U.S. culture center in response to the attack.

An editorial in the Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, called on U.S. delegations Thursday to stay away if they are unable to adopt an impartial position towards the Damascus regime.

The reaction came in response to criticism by U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) of Syria's longstanding alliance with Iran and Arab militant groups.

"It would be better if U.S. delegations planning to express similar views did not come to Damascus, as they will find nobody here who is ready to listen to Israeli diktats delivered via the United States," the paper said.

Kerry made it clear on earlier stops of his trip that a U.S.-Syrian rapprochement will require Assad to stop meddling in Lebanese politics and to back away from support of the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, and - perhaps most important of all - prying Syria away from its three-decade alliance with Iran.

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

Syria 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 to restore the Golan Heights, end sanctions, and allow the inflow of Western investment and technology.

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.

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