US Middle East envoy heads to Syria

Mitchell stops in Damascus ahead of Israel visit in order to encourage Assad to play positive role.

The US State Department on Thursday said that the Obama administration's special Middle East envoy is heading to Syria. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said George Mitchell planned to arrive Friday for his second visit to Damascus since he took up his post. The visit comes ahead of Mitchell's scheduled trip to Israel and the West Bank, during which he is expected to discuss kick-starting peace talks with the Palestinians and the recent spat between Israel and Washington over continued Israeli construction in east Jerusalem. The Obama administration has held a series of meetings with Syrian officials and hopes the diplomatic effort will encourage Damascus to play a positive role in the peace process and relinquish its ties with Iran. On Wednesday, in a renewed attempt by Turkey to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Following the meeting, Erdogan told reporters that he had arrived in the country after receiving requests to help revive the peace talks which were ended by Turkey in December, after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Last week, Fredd Hof, a top aide to Mitchell, held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Thursday in Damascus. The secret indirect peace talks between the two countries were revealed in spring 2008, under the leadership of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. At the time, it was reported that the clandestine talks had been going on for nearly two years. However, despite the progress, political turmoil within Israel over corruption allegations against Olmert, coupled with the security situation along the border with Gaza put an end to the negotiations.