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Syrian Leader Reaches Out To Obama

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
In a congratulatory wire sent to Barack Obama, President Bashar al-Assad voiced his hope Wednesday that Syria and the United States could will be able to build a "constructive dialogue," according to Syrian officials.

America's image in the region has been greatly by Israel's 22-day military operation in the Gaza Strip. Most Arabs believe Israel wouldn't have dared to perpetrate the offensive without a green light from Washington.

"Assad sent the cable after Obama was sworn in and gave his speech in which he succeeded in declaring his policy, which affirmed a desire to achieve peace around the world and resort to hope rather than fear as a basis for political approaches," read the cable.

Assad's message expressed Syria's "hope for a constructive dialogue with the United States based on common interests and mutual respect, leading to a just and comprehensive peace in the region based on relevant U.N. resolutions."

Syria and Israel, which have not held face-to-face talks in decades, held four rounds of indirect talks last year mediated by Turkey, but the talks made no significant headway and it is not clear when they might resume.

Syria has been subject since 1979 to stiff economic sanctions because of its place on the U.S. State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism."

In December 2003, Congress added an additional layer of penalties when it passed the Syria Accountability Act, seen by many here as an attempt by the Bush administration to prompt regime change.

The Bush White House also worked hard to isolate and weaken Syria on the international scene. It has repeatedly blocked the World Trade Organization (WTO) from accepting Syria's membership application.

In February 2005, when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the U.S. and France both loudly blamed Syria and the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. There has been no U.S. ambassador here since.

Syria has, however, regained a degree of approval in Europe after supporting a peace pact with Lebanon and forging diplomatic ties with its neighbor country after years spent dominating it.

Observers say Syria, which has good relations with a broad range of actors in the Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese political scenes, could contribute a lot to any international push to build a stable peace in the region.

Last week, Obama told CBS News he was going to work toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East "on day one" of his presidency, and that this would include Syria. "We're going to have to take a regional approach. We're going to have to involve Syria in discussions," he said.

"That was music to the ears of the Syrians, since under the Bush White House, nobody believed Syria's sincerity over peace talks," says Syrian political analyst Sami Mubayed.

"The Bush team wrongly believed that the Syrians were more interested in returning to Lebanon than in restoring the Golan (Heights). That was untrue and unfair to Syria," he added, referring to a tiny piece of land which has been disputed by Israel and Syria.

Mubayed suggested there were immediate overtures that Obama could start with.

"One gesture would be sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus, to fill a post that has been vacant for years," Mubayed said. "Then he could invite Arabs, Israelis and world leaders to a conference — similar to Annapolis — to discuss peace in the Middle East."

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