Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a U.S. delegation Saturday that he was seeking to set off a "positive and constructive" dialogue with the United States, hoping to clench stronger ties between the two nations, reports CBS News' George Baghdadi.
Assad's outreach came during lengthy talks with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation headed by Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, a rare visit seen by many diplomats here as an attempt to break the ice between Damascus and Washington.
"The president underlined the importance of conducting a positive and constructive dialogue which is built on the basis of the mutual interests and reciprocal respect between Syria and the United States," Syrian officials said.
The American delegation, they said, "underlined Syria's important role in the region and expressed the new U.S. administration's desire to develop Syrian-American relations to serve stability in the Middle East."
Smith, who has served for 12 years in the House, is accompanied by six other representatives: Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), Glenn Nye (D-Va.), Ted Poe (R-Texas), and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md).
Assad also briefed the delegation, which arrived Saturday evening, about Syria's vision of the situation in the Middle East, particularly following the latest Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Although U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell excluded Damascus from his regional tour, today's talks and a visit to the Syrian capital next month by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., were clear signs of a thaw in relations.
Syria's ties with the U.S. were strained under former President George W. Bush, who frequently accused Damascus of allowing people and weapons across their border into Iraq to fight American troops.
However, with the beginning of the Obama administration, Assad has shown cautious optimism regarding U.S.-Syrian relations, telling Al-Manar television (which is operated by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant group) that a "serious" joint dialogue has already been initiated.
"We have positive indications, but we learned to be careful. As long as there are no tangible results, we have to assume that things have not changed," he said.
Damascus 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 (according to U.S. and Palestinian officials), and hundreds more wounded.
Neither side has ruled out a resumption of the talks, which focused on the future of the occupied Golan Heights.
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