Mitchell: Peace Our Ultimate Goal in Mideast

George Mitchell, the Obama administration's Middle East envoy, hoped on Sunday his new round of talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad — their second in a month — would breathe new life into the faltering peace process, Washington's ultimate goal in the Middle East.
(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
"I have just completed a very candid and positive conservation with President al-Assad," Mitchell said in a statement from Damascus. "I discussed with him the prospects for moving forward on our goal of comprehensive peace in the region and improved bilateral relations between Syria and the United States.

"I told President al-Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. That peace means between Palestinians and Israelis, between Syria and Israel, and between Lebanon and Israel. And of course, ultimately, the full normalization of relations between Israel and all of the countries in the region. This is what the Arab Peace Initiative calls for, and it is the ultimate aim of the effort we are undertaking," the U.S. official added.

The Obama administration had a series of meetings with Syria, and hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Damascus to play a positive role in both the Middle East peace process and also in Iraq.

Mitchell's visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior U.S. officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House, as part of talks about improving relations with a country shunned by former President George W. Bush.

"In terms of Syrian-Israeli peace, our near-term goal is the resumption of negotiations. Comprehensive peace is the only way to guarantee stability, security, and prosperity for all of the states in the region. In terms of the Syrian-American relationship, the United States is committed to a dialogue based on mutual interest and mutual respect and a solid foundation for discussion of our shared goals and of real differences, where they occur," Mitchell said.

"Syria is a country blessed with talented people and a long and impressive history. Syria, like all of its neighbors, needs real peace to achieve its full potential. Our goal is to bring to this region, and to all of its people, an opportunity to live in peace and dignity. If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor," he concluded.

A Syrian Presidential statement only said that Assad underlined Syria's "firm national stances" in retaining the occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace based on international resolutions and the land-for-peace formula." It did not elaborate.

Mitchell, an architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, arrived overnight and was also set to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories later in the day, where he'll try to kick-start peace talks with the Palestinians and discuss the recent spat between Israel and Washington over continued Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.

Arab diplomats suggest Syria might represent a slightly more attainable goal of the Obama White House's Mideast agenda — certainly when compared to the prospects of a breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

Syria has appeared increasingly confident on the world stage, breaking out of its previous international isolation. Barely a day goes by without a Western politician or envoy knocking on Assad's palace door.

Observers say Syria, which has good relations with a broad range of actors in the region, could contribute greatly to any international push to build a stable peace in the region. The Obama administration also hopes to weaken Syria's strategic alliance with Iran by engaging the regime in Damascus.

But diplomats doubt that Syria will abandon its political approach and give up its cards in exchange for mere overtures of cooperation.
Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, is also due in the region on Sunday, compounding America's diplomatic efforts to kick-start a regional peace deal. He was not set to visit Damascus.

Mr. Obama is believed to be focusing on a peace plan backed by 57 nations — the so-called "Arab" initiative — that would see almost the entire Muslim world officially recognize Israel in return for security guarantees and the Jewish state agreeing to pull back to its pre-1967 borders.

Syria's official press on Sunday hoped Mitchell would succeed in his new mission, vowing to help as much as it could in other regional issues.

"Damascus is ready to secure the solutions for all issues of tension in the region. Giving Syria its rights and occupied lands would enable it to mobilize its efforts to bring about a solution for other suspended issues in the area," the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper said in its political commentary.

By CBS News' George Baghdadi reporting from Damascus