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(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday he wants to develop better ties with the US and he has seen signals of change from Washington, even as visiting congressmen called on Damascus to change its behavior.
Assad met with US Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) to find common ground with the US after years of tension, "through serious and positive dialogue based on mutual respect and joint interest in finding just solutions to the region's problems," according to the Syrian state news agency.
After the meeting, however, Cardin said the US administration would be watching Syria's actions "very carefully."
Cardin said he blamed Damascus for the deteriorated relations, saying it has isolated itself by sponsoring international terrorism, providing safe haven for terrorist organizations and maintaining "troubling relations with Iran."
"The question we came to try and answer here in Syria is whether or not Syria is ready to make important and significant decisions that bring us closer rather than lose this opportunity to move forward," Cardin said.
On Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper quoted Assad as saying, "We have the impression that this administration will be different."
"We have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results," he continued, mentioning his concerns about the impact of "other lobbies and other players."
He told the Guardian that he hoped "in principle" to meet Obama, "but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to discuss peace."
Assad is also welcoming Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Howard Berman of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to Damascus this week, as part of stepped up outreach by the US.
The meetings coincide with Washington's decision to authorize the sale of spare parts for two old Syrian Boeing 747s. There is also speculation that the US will soon be dispatching an ambassador to Syria for the first time since the murder of anti-Syrian Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri in 2005, which many have blamed on Damascus.
The openings also correspond with comments by US President Barack Obama and others in his administration that America would be seeking diplomatic openings with Syria. One comment in particular concerns possible movement in negotiations between Israel and Syria, which Israel had pursued indirectly through Turkey despite the reservations of the Bush administration, until Syria called them off during the campaign in Gaza.
"If we're going to broker peace between Israel and Syria we need to talk to them," said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, on a conference call arranged by The Israel Project Wednesday. "The efforts to isolate Syria by the previous Bush administration were unsustainable when circumstances arose where Turkey and Israel were trying to make peace with Syria. That undermined the whole" approach of isolation.
Still, several analysts cautioned imputing too much from this week's initial steps. The US has characterized the sale of the airplane parts as a safety issue mandated by law, while congressional delegations have been common for many years, even during times of significant tension with the Bush administration.
"It would be a mistake to see these visits, on their own, as indicative of a shift in administration policy," said Scott Lasensky, a Syria expert with the US Institute of Peace. "That said, it appears the Syrian regime is eager for improved ties with Washington, which is why these discussions, and any actions that follow, could have a significant impact on the future course of the relationship."
"It's not whether these congressmen make a visit," said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's David Schenker on the significance of the current overtures. "It's what they say and whether there's a response from Syria."
He noted that Syria had put preconditions on diplomatic talks with the US, including a rollback of sanctions against the country as well as its removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Though Schenker said the White House would have some discretion on parts of these policies, it would be unlikely to accede to Syrian demands, and Congress, which would have to repeal much of the sanctions, had shown no sign of doing so.
"There's no doubt the environment and atmosphere have changed," Schenker said of Washington's new approach toward Damascus, "but the behavior of the Syrian government hasn't changed in the least."
"We're still going to have the same issues with Syria that do not warrant good relations," he said.
Kerry said the US would renew diplomacy with Syria but in return expected Syria to "change its behavior," particularly with respect to Iraq and Lebanon.
"But unlike the Bush administration that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe we have to engage in a discussion," he said.
Ahead of his visit to Damascus, he recited a list of American concerns that Syria would have to deal with.
"We want Syria to respect the political independence of Lebanon, and help in the process of resolving issues with Hizbullah and with the Palestinians," AFP quoted him saying. "We want Syria to help... with the disarmament of Hizbullah."
AP contributed to this report.