Assad urges US to play stronger ME role

US readies new push on M

Syrian President Bashar Assad has urged the United States to play a stronger role in Mideast peacemaking, according to Syria's state-run news agency Assad appealed to the US on Thursday during a meeting with US congressman Alcee Hastings in Damascus. US President Barack Obama has stepped up diplomatic efforts to improve ties with Syria and push the country away from its alliance with Iran and its support for terror groups like Hizbullah and Hamas. Damascus wants to end its international isolation and hopes the US can help boost its weak economy and mediate peace talks with Israel. Assad also lashed out at Israel Thursday, saying it was not ready for peace. The last round of Syria-Israel peace talks collapsed in 2000. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is gearing up for a fresh attempt to relaunch stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after the effort hit a dead end last year. In a flurry of meetings in Washington and in European capitals this week and next, senior administration officials will explore new approaches to bringing the two sides together. The new track would include preparing letters for Israeli and Palestinian leaders that would lay out the endgame and guarantee US support for a negotiated end to the conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered no details Wednesday about the renewed US commitment, but she and Mideast envoy George Mitchell will see Egyptian and Jordanian officials in Washington this week. Egypt and Jordan are essential to the peace push as they are Israel's only Arab neighbors to have fully recognize the Jewish state. The discussions began in earnest Monday - the first working day of the new year - when Clinton met with the prime minister of Qatar, whose country is among numerous Arab states the US is asking to support the process. "We're going to be even more committed this year, and we're starting this new year with that level of commitment and we're going to follow through and hopefully we can see this as a positive year in this long process," Clinton told reporters after the meeting. Obama's attempt to restart the negotiations during his first year in office began with much fanfare with the appointment of Northern Ireland peace broker and former Sen. George Mitchell. But it failed amid Israeli-Palestinian recriminations and Arab reluctance to back the process without significant concessions from Israel. Clinton and Mitchell are scheduled to meet at the State Department on Friday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. "Judeh will stress the importance of relaunching negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis under a clear and time-bound plan that addresses final status issues between the two parties, achieves a just and lasting peace and establishes an independent Palestinian state," the Jordanian Embassy in Washington said Wednesday. Following those talks, Mitchell will travel on Sunday to Paris and Brussels for meetings with his counterparts from the so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - and European diplomats before a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories later in the month, US officials said. When he travels to the region, Mitchell is expected to be carrying letters of "guarantees" outlining the US position. The letters are likely to contain gestures to both sides. For the Palestinians, that would include criticism of settlements and the belief that the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War be the basis of a future peace deal. For the Israelis, they would acknowledge that post-1967 demographic changes on the ground must be taken into account, meaning that Israel would be able to keep some settlements. One aim of Mitchell's European stops is to prepare for a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers from the Quartet that France has expressed an interest in hosting, possibly toward the end of January around international conferences on Afghanistan and Yemen that are to be held in London on Jan. 28, the officials said. Despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's willingness to host such a meeting this month, Obama administration officials believe it may be too soon and are looking to push it off until after Mitchell returns to the region. UN chief Ban Ki-moon met with Mitchell at the world body's headquarters in New York on Tuesday and said planning for a Quartet principals meeting was under way. "We are now discussing when would be appropriate timing for principals of Quartet to meet together," Ban told reporters at the United Nations on Wednesday. "It may not happen during this month but this is a subject of continuous consultation."