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Syria: We're Part Of Mideast Peace Process

(AP Photo/Ola al-Rifai)
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem (at right in photo) said Wednesday he hoped America's new Middle East envoy George Mitchell was sincere enough in his desire to help negotiate a peace deal that he would meaningfully involve Damascus in the process.

"No peace envoy can succeed in his mission without the peacemaking will of all parties. The envoy should be an honest broker in this process and should contact all parties concerned. In other words, not contact one party and isolate another," Muallem told reporters in Damascus during a joint news conference with visiting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"I have heard a lot about Senator Mitchell, but I never met him. If his intentions were true, then he should contact all parties, because I cannot judge on somebody from afar," Muallem added.

Mitchell left Damascus off the itinerary on his first trip to the region, and he was expected to make another tour this week.

Syria's Ambassador in Washington, Imad Mustafa, however, was scheduled to meet acting head of the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, on Thursday. It will be the highest-level contact between the two nations since the Obama administration took office.

Solana, who described Syria's role in the region as pivotal, told reporters after his talks with Muallem that he had the, "feeling there is a desire to push negotiations (between Syria and Israel) forward."

He did not elaborate, but suggested the EU's condemnation of the militant Palestinian Islamic group Hamas was clear and constant. The senior leadership of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, is based in exile in Damascus.

Muallem offered a different perspective.

"Events have proven that Hamas is a de facto fact in Gaza, and the West Bank. Hamas is an important party of the Palestinian people and we are looking forward to Hamas joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the near future. We are looking for Palestinian reconciliation so that the Palestinian people, through their unity, can safeguard their cause," he told reporters.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Solana, according to an official statement, agreed that building better ties between Syria and the EU would help establish peace and stability in the Middle East.

"Assad and Solana underlined the importance of advancing and bolstering relations to serve the interests of the two sides and contribute in establishing peace and stability in the region," the statement read.

In a meeting with Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari, Solana focused on the necessity to expand cooperation in the economic, trade, industrial, investment and developmental fields, according to state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

They also discussed suitable mechanisms and procedures to fulfill the final signing of the Syrian-EU association agreement, SANA said.

The Association Agreement, which envisages the granting of financial aid to Syria in return for economic reforms, was revised and initialed by the European Commission and Damascus in December. The text of the agreement is now being considered by the 27 EU member states.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said after talks with Assad in the Syrian capital last week that the long-delayed partnership agreement, frozen for political reasons, was to see light in a few months.

The West has applauded recent positive developments in Syria's regional policy, in particular the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon and the indirect peace talks with Israel, which Damascus halted after the Jewish state's 22-day military operation in Gaza.