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In Syria, Cardin Seeks Reforms Before Renewing Relations

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) – on a two-day fact-finding mission to Syria – argued that opening a new chapter with Damascus requires it to end its three-decade alliance with Iran and support for the militant groups.
(AP Photo/Eric Feferberg)
At the same time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (at left)signaled his country was seeking to start out new relations through "serious and positive" dialogue.

The remarks came after a set of talks between the two men. Cardin is in Syria in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission -- the U.S. branch of an alliance of parliamentary human rights monitors that reports to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Today's meeting between President Assad and the U.S. delegation focused on bilateral ties and the need for developing them through serious and positive dialogue based on mutual respect and joint interest in finding just solutions to the region's problems," a Syrian presidential statement read.

It said that the talks also dealt with recent developments in the Middle East, strengthening peacemaking efforts in the region, and the need to combat terrorism.

The statement quoted Assad as telling the delegation that achieving peace is the "key" for maintaining stability in the region.

"Syria has isolated itself by its partnership of terrorism, by providing safe haven to terrorist organizations, its relations with Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad, and a troubled relationship with Iran," Cardin told reporters in a press conference at Damascus airport.

"The question we came try to answer here is about whether Syria is ready to make important and significant decisions that will bring us closer together and move forward," he read from a written statement.

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
"Dialogue is important but actions speak louder than words. We will be watching Syria's actions very carefully over the next weeks and months," added Cardin (at left) before leaving for Vienna, where the group will attend the Winter Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA).

Nevertheless, Cardin's visit and the trip to Syria Saturday by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), as well as a scheduled visit by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman later this month, signify a growing rapprochement with this Middle East nation after years of isolation.

Assad said in an interview with the Guardian the previous day that he hoped Untied States would send an ambassador soon to cement ties.

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.

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.

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.

The U.S. delegation -- which includes Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) -- also visited the United Nations High Commission for Refugees facility in Damascus to assess the situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria.