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US President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy said Saturday that Syria has a key role to play in forging peace in the region during a visit that marked the strongest US push yet to improve relations with the country.
"Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace," said George Mitchell, Obama's Mideast envoy and the highest ranking official to visit Syria since 2005 when the US recalled its ambassador.
Syria and the US share an obligation "to create conditions for negotiations to begin promptly and end successfully," Mitchell told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the capital, Damascus.
A senior Syrian official described Saturday's talks as "very positive" and said the two also discussed the situation in neighboring Iraq, where the US has often criticized Syria for allowing militants to enter across its border. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to talk to the media.
Mitchell's visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior US officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House. Feltman is currently in the country with Mitchell.
The Obama administration hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Syria to play a positive role in both the Mideast peace process and also in Iraq.
"I've held substantive discussion with President Assad and on the full range of serious issues in our bilateral relationship," Mitchell said. "We seek to build on this effort to establish a relationship built on mutual respect and mutual interest."