Israeli officials on Thursday dismissed speculation that US Sen. John Kerry will have any luck in Damascus, testing the waters for a Syrian-Israeli diplomatic channel, saying President Bashar Assad’s bellicose statement at the recent Arab League summit in Libya belied any peaceful strategy.
Assad on Sunday called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to ditch negotiations with Israel in favor of “armed resistance.”
Kerry, nonetheless, said in Damascus following a three-hour meeting with Assad that Syria was committed to engaging in peace-making and was essential to the Mideast process.
The purpose of Kerry’s trip, according to his office, was to assess the prospects for advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, as well as the political situation in Syria and Lebanon, where he stopped on Wednesday.
The Democrat, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Thursday that Washington was also concerned about the flow of arms to Hizbullah.
“That is something that must stop in order to promote regional stability and security,” Kerry said about the weapons.
Washington has reached out to Syria in recent months by nominating the first US ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with Assad. Washington is hoping to draw Syria away from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
“Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region,” said Kerry, who has long advocated US engagement with Damascus.
“He believes in engagement with Syria, and that through engagement the Syrians can be convinced to play a more helpful role in the Arab-Israeli process,” a Kerry aide noted. “This is part of his ongoing [efforts].”
In Israel last month, Kerry discussed Syria’s relationship with Iran, saying that “no one should be surprised, given the relationship of the last years, that discussions are continuing between Syria and Iran.”
The two countries are neighbors, he said, “and they have obviously been pushed somewhat together by the events of the last years. My hope is that we can offer a better alternative, a better set of choices.”
Kerry, during that visit which also took him to Jordan and Qatar, spoke by phone with Assad from Amman.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said on numerous occasions that he was open for negotiations with Assad as long as the Syrians did not place any preconditions on the talks.
Kerry’s visit to Damascus comes as US President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, awaits Senate confirmation.
According to a post on the Foreign Policy
Web site’s The Cable blog on Wednesday, the State Department recently
sent a letter to key senators justifying its return of an ambassador to
Syria – despite its poor human rights record, its violation of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its support for Hamas and Hizbullah
and its unhelpful efforts in the Arab League – on the grounds that an
envoy in Damascus was needed to build the level of dialogue and
interaction to help convince Syria improve its bad behavior.
Eight Republican senators recently wrote a letter to US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton questioning what Syria had done to merit a return
of the US ambassador.
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.