A U.S. Congressional delegation was to arrive in Damascus Friday night in what could be the start to a new chapter in Syria – U.S. relations.
After years of disregard by George W. Bush, President Bashar al-Assad is hoping Barack Obama will bring Syria into the diplomatic fold, genuinely engaging Israel's neighbor in the effort to bring lasting stability to the Middle East.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wa., was heading the delegation of House Armed Services Committee members dispatched by the Obama administration, which seems keen to push the Mideast peace agenda, according to diplomats in Damascus.
They said the delegation was to hold talks with senior Syrian officials on how to further bilateral relations between the two countries in advance of a visit next month by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Ca., the chairman of the of House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The U.S. Embassy in Damascus confirmed that the delegation was to arrive Friday evening.
Syria, which has good relations with a broad range of actors in the Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese political arenas, could contribute a lot to any international push to build a stable peace in the region.
Syria's relations with the U.S. struggled under President Bush, who frequently accused Damascus of allowing people and weapons across their border into Iraq to fight American troops.
However, since the American change of power, Assad has shown cautious optimism, telling Al-Manar television (operated by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant group) that a "serious" joint dialogue has already been initiated.
(Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attends the emergency Arab leaders summit on Gaza in Doha, Qatar, Jan. 16, 2009.)
(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
"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 22-day 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 many more wounded.
Neither side has ruled out a resumption of the talks, which focused on the future of the occupied Golan Heights, but they remained on hold Friday.
The Gaza offensive also brought increased calls from voices in the West to engage Hamas, which has the backing of Syria, although that group still refuses to abandon its armed resistance or to recognize Israel. Those conditions must be met before the U.S. or the E.U. are even willing (officially) to speak to Hamas.
Syrian officials have indicated that the international community would need Syria's help if it wished to engage rather than shun the militant Palestinian group.
"It is true Hamas should be engaged; there are new realities on the ground. The Islamic group has managed to stick to its commitment to resist and clinch to its stances despite the apparent heavy losses it sustained, it is still able to fire rockets into south Israel and the Israeli soldier it kidnapped three years ago is still in captivity," says Syrian political analyst Ahmad Fathi.
France, in fact, has started the ball rolling. Former Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet and another Parliamentarian recently met Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, behind closed doors, according to Western diplomats.