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U.S. Opens Door To Syria Dialogue

(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) arrived in Damascus on Tuesday for a two-day visit to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and try to put relations with Damascus on a path to bring new momentum to President Obama's Middle East agenda.

The move by the new U.S. administration and the trip to Syria next week by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as that by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman of California, are clear indications that Washington is opening the door wide for this Middle East nation to dialogue after years of isolation.

Another congressional delegation, headed by Rep. Adam Smith, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, paid a visit to Damascus last month and declared the United States was willing to turn a new leaf in relations with Syria.

Shortly afterwards, the U.S. gave a rare authorization for the U.S. to sell Damascus plane parts to repair two aging Boeing 747s — despite Washington's trade sanctions.

Former President George W. Bush imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria in 2004 — primarily as punishment for Damascus' support for the Islamic militant movements Hamas and Hezbollah — which he then extended during his last year in office.

Washington's ambassador to Syria was withdrawn following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.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.

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.

Cardin is leading a fact-finding mission 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 – and was to meet Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Mualem.

A press release from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus said the focus of the trip was on "U.S.-Syrian bilateral relations, the state of the peace process and regional issues."

"Clearly, the Americans are seeking solutions to the Middle East crisis through Syria," says political analyst Sami Moubayed. "After many years of deliberate neglect under George W. Bush, the Americans realize that if they want solutions to Hezbollah, Hamas, or Iraq, they need Syria's help."

"That doesn't come without a price, as the Syrians have always said, and that price would include removing sanctions imposed on Syria by Bush, starting a dialogue with Damascus, hearing out Syrian worries, and giving Syrians the Golan Heights," he adds.

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-Wis., also plans to visit the United Nations High Commission for Refugees facility in Damascus to assess the situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Cardin was scheduled to give a news conference at Damascus airport Wednesday before leaving for Vienna, where the group will attend the 8th Annual Winter Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA).

"Washington cannot look on Syria as a punching bag or pin cushion, as Bush did. If Obama is going to make any progress on peace in the region, Damascus has to be treated as a partner. This is particularly true as the Palestinian arena seems even more hopeless following Israel's elections," writes the SyriaComment Web site on the latest U.S. overture.

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