Senator Specter: Assad ready for peace with Israel

Calls meeting with Syrian president "productive," says US can bridge gap between countries.

specter 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
specter 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
President Bashar Assad is ready for peace with Israel, an influential US senator said Sunday after talks with the Syrian leader. Senator Arlen Specter said the political atmosphere in both Syria and Israel was different now and that the time was "positive" for resuming peace talks between the two countries, halted since 2000. "We had a very productive meeting with Assad," Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told The Associated Press after talks with the Syrian leader in Damascus. He added that he got the impression after the meeting with Assad that the time was very "positive for productive talks between Israel and Syria." "There is a sense that he [Assad] is ready and the Syrian public opinion is ready [for peace]," Specter said. The meeting with Assad that was also attended by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat. Specter said the United States has the potential to "bridge the gap" between Israel and Syria. He added that the atmosphere is "very different in Damascus today and is very different in Jerusalem today" in part because of last month's US-sponsored Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, which Syria attended. In 2000, formal US-sponsored Israel-Syria talks neared agreement but broke down over final border and peace arrangements. Syria demands the full return of the Golan Heights, the territory seized by Israel in the Six-Day War. The two Congressmen arrived here Saturday on a two-day visit for talks on the stalled Middle East peace process and strained US-Syrian relations. Specter, who held talks Saturday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, declined to confirm reports that he would convey a message to Assad from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on resuming peace talks between the two countries. Relations between Syria and the US appeared to warm briefly following Syria's attendance at the Annapolis conference, which was widely seen as an attempt to gain favor with Washington. But both sides have since lashed out at one another, each accusing the other of meddling in Lebanon, where the Western-backed government is locked in a political standoff with the pro-Syrian opposition. The US also disapproves of Damascus' support for anti-Israel militant groups and its alliance with Iran. Last week, US President George W. Bush rejected dialogue with the Syrian leader, saying his "patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago." A Syrian government newspaper on Sunday urged the United States to work seriously for peace in the region. "What is the problem of the US Administration with Syria so long as US delegations, Republicans and Democrats, have not stopped visiting Damascus and confirming the importance of its role in solving the region's problems?" Baath, the ruling party newspaper, said in an editorial. "Where is the courage and daring that Bush urged all parties to display to achieve peace in the Middle East?" it added.