Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., left, meets with Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday Feb. 21, 2009.
Two U.S. lawmakers came out of talks with Syrian leaders on Saturday more hopeful Damascus would engage in dialogue with the new administration as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad denounced what he called Washington's "dictation policy" of recent years.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., both agreed they see prospects for better relations with Syria, a country shunned under Bush.
"I was encouraged by the discussions we had with President Assad, Vice-President Farouk Al-Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem," Kerry said. "The discussions were very long, frank, candid and open. We talked about almost every issue that you can imagine between us."
"I believe deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation," he added.
The U.S. leaders arrived earlier in the day, heading separate delegations sent to encourage Syria to curb support for Islamist militant groups in exchange for renewed diplomacy after years of tension.
"What I heard was a great willingness to share in efforts with respect to Iraq where there are mutual concerns. I heard a strong language with hopes for Lebanon and the possibility for providing stability there," Kerry told CBS News.
Berman had almost the same impression.
"I had a lively 75-minute conversation with President Assad on a range of issues affecting bilateral relations," he said, adding that he hoped the policy of isolation would not go further and that he would return home "hopeful" about next steps with Syria.
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.
"President Assad underlined … the need for moving away from the dictation policy which has proven useless," the Syrian government said in a statement. "Assad emphasized that any talk about the peace process requires, first and before anything else, parties that believe in peace and have the genuine intention to work in achieving it."
Today's two separate trips come on the heels of the Obama administration giving a rare authorization for the U.S. to sell Damascus parts to repair two aging Boeing 747s — despite Washington's trade sanctions — in addition to allowing the transfer of funds from the United States to a Syrian charity.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.
The United States has 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.
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 to restore the Golan Heights, to end sanctions, and allow 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.
"What I heard, and what I will take back with me, is the possibility of re-cooperation of a number of different issues, beginning immediately, beginning soon," Kerry said.
"My hope is that in the next days things will begin to emerge. I will go back to Washington more hopeful and absolutely more convinced of the possibility of changing the equation," he added.
"I think if there is a will, we can end years of prejudice disappointment and begin to make real progress," he said.