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Syria Mulls New Indirect Talks With Israel

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Monday his country may consider restarting indirect peace talks with Tel Aviv if the Jewish state's next prime minister — to be determined by an election next week —seeks a "comprehensive peace deal."

"If Israel proves after its elections that whoever comes to power has the will for a just and comprehensive peace based on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, then that would deserve another evaluation," Muallem told reporters after talks with Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.

Israel is due to hold parliamentary elections on Feb. 10.

Syria formally broke off indirect talks with Israel, which were mediated by Turkey last May, during Israel's 22-day offensive on Gaza that left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, half of them women and children.

"After the Israeli aggression, the people of our region are not enthusiastic about the peace process. Their top priority and concern is to decrease the suffering of our people in Gaza, lifting the siege, opening of crossing points and rebuilding Gaza through solidifying the ceasefire," said the Syrian Foreign Minister.

Muallem showed guarded optimism over the election of President Barack Obama, saying in reply to a question that it would, "take a year to find out" how his country and the U.S. might get along in the future.

"People in this region sometimes become optimistic when a new American president comes along, only to be disappointed later. But this administration will definitely not be worse than the one of (George) Bush regarding our region," he said.

Although Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, opted not to visit Damascus during his first tour of the region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has voiced hopes a thaw in relations can happen under the new American leader.

"I am sure Mitchell will feel, after he goes back to Washington, that there is a shortfall in his information that he can make up in his next trip," Muallem said.

Last week, Mr. Obama dispatched a congressional delegation to Damascus, headed by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wa., a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, to discuss with Syrian leaders the best way to further ties between the two countries.

Syria and the United States remained on poor terms because of the Bush administration's repeated accusations that Damascus was providing material support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement — both of which are classified as terrorist organizations by the United States.

A Presidential statement said that Assad and Martin, Ireland's chief diplomat, agreed on the need to immediately lift the 18-month blockade on the tiny, impoverished seaside Gaza Strip, and open its border crossings with Israel to allow humanitarian aid in.

Martin arrived in Damascus earlier Monday as part of a Middle East tour that will also take him to Lebanon and Abu Dhabi.

Syria's state-run news agency reported that Assad had called for a more active European role in the region to, "help find appropriate solutions to the problems that would positively reflect on the stability of the world."

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