'Assad ready to resume indirect talks'

Assad calls for a "positive" dialogue with Washington.

Bashar Assad 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad says he would be willing to resume negotiations with Israel after its elections, according to two American delegations that visited him in Damascus recently. Assad called Saturday for a "positive" dialogue with Washington, Syria's official news agency reported. Assad's comments came during a meeting with a visiting US congressional delegation. The Syrian leader stressed during the meeting that talks with the United States should be based on "common interests and mutual respect." Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, called the meeting an "excellent beginning" in relations with Syria. "We are very optimistic in the US with our newly elected President Obama that we have an opportunity for a fresh start in our relations with Syria," Smith told reporters at Damascus International Airport before leaving the country. "We all want peace for this region. We all want to successfully fight terrorism." When asked if a new US ambassador could be seen soon in Damascus, Smith said he hoped so. Assad also hosted a group of American academics on January 11, while the Gaza violence was raging, and indicated that once that conflict concluded he wanted to get back to the indirect talks, brokered by Turkey, that he has suspended amid the hostilities. "He was saying, 'We were getting very close to agreement until Gaza happened,'" reported Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University political scientist who was among the eight-member group that visited Syria and Saudi Arabia, speaking to officials at the highest levels as well as to business leaders, democracy advocates and other opinion elites. Jentleson and three other experts who briefed reporters on their trip Thursday noted that Assad hadn't gone into the specifics of what had been accomplished and that he tended to put the onus on Israel for needing sufficiently strong leadership - as the Syrians have - to make a deal happen. "It's a little bit of a safety net for them," explained Stimson Center President Ellen Laipson, another trip participant. She also related that the general attitude toward new US President Barack Obama in the Arab countries was not as enthusiastic as might have been suggested by the welcome his victory received. In both Damascus and Riyadh she found "a little bit of excitement about the change in leadership, but realism and some cynicism." Daniel Brumberg, acting director of the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute of Peace, which co-sponsored the trip, said the anticipation of new American leadership among Saudi leaders was tempered in part by concerns about how it might act toward Teheran. "They are highly concerned about Iran and are very explicit about it," he said, adding that while they didn't oppose engagement in principle, they were concerned about the Obama administration acting quickly in a way that ended up increasing rather than minimizing Iran's regional leverage. "There is this fear that the administration is going to jump in not knowing what it's doing," Brumberg said, noting that the Saudis would generally prefer that the US overtures occur after Iran's June elections, when President Mahmoud Admadinejad will be seeking to stay in office. Brumberg said that Obama's silence during Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza had deflated some in the Arab world who had hoped he would usher in a significant change in America's posture. Now, he said, "A lot of people anticipate there that the [pro-Israel] lobby would come in and this administration would look like other administrations." Brumberg also threw cold water on the notion that Syria could be convinced to break its growing ties with Iran to turn toward the West. "There's going to be no flipping," he assessed. Instead the Syrians are saying, "We have this relationship. We can have one with you too." When it comes to Hamas, according to Brumberg, Assad believes the Islamist group can be brought to the negotiating table and that Israel missed opportunities to do just that. Laipson, however, described the Syrians' harsh criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza as almost devoid of a political context in which the role of Hamas was examined or even acknowledged. "This was not a defense of Hamas," she stressed. "They were almost silent on Hamas as a political actor." Jentleson said the continued importance of America to Syria was obvious. As much as Assad liked to emphasize the part Turkey had played in the indirect talks and his own strong relationship with Istanbul - in part to be seen as a regional player - he didn't see that channel as replacing the American role. The message, according to Jentleson, was that "no matter how well the talks on the Golan go, there won't be any closure without a US role." AP contributed to this report