Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that the United States and Syria are close to restoring full diplomatic ties, but he doubted Cuba's new openness means its leaders are ready to grant free speech or change their political system. "I don't have much doubt that the present tentative plan of our government and the Syrian government is to re-establish diplomatic relations when it's propitious to do so," he told The Associated Press. "I don't see any impediment to it. It will be an orderly process," Carter said in a telephone interview from Quito, Ecuador, at the start of a four-nation South American trip. "I wouldn't be surprised if it happens this year." Carter said he planned to meet President Bashar Assad in Syria in early June after attending elections in Lebanon. The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 after a political assassination widely blamed on Syria - a claim Damascus denies. Washington has long objected to Syria's support for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups as well as its alliance with Iran.