Sat, Feb 28, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Syria upbeat after first talks with Obama team

AFP , WASHINGTON

Syria sounded upbeat on Thursday after holding its first high-level talks with the US since US President Barack Obama took office, saying the “very constructive meeting” will pave the way for more.

Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustafa told reporters that he discussed “the way forward” between the two countries at his meeting on Thursday in Washington with Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.

US-Syrian ties were especially tense during former US president George W. Bush’s administration, which accused Damascus of supporting terrorism.

“I think that was a very constructive meeting based on the desire of the United States of America to engage with the rest of the world, based on what President Obama has coined as a ‘dialog with respect,’” Mustafa said.

“We believe that this meeting has explored possibilities that we see with the US to engage seriously on a diplomatic and political level, and also to discuss all the mutual concerns of both parties,” he said.

“We think this is a first step and we believe there will be many further meetings. We were discussing things in depth about issues and the way forward, the vision of the relations between the two countries,” he said.

The State Department said on Wednesday that the two would discuss US concerns over Syrian ties to terrorism and other issues.

“There remain key differences between our two governments, including our concerns about Syria’s support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria’s acquisition of nuclear and non-conventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon and worsening human rights situation,” it said.

Official Syrian sources said that Mustafa had been invited by the State Department to the talks with Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon.

The meeting was the highest level of direct contact between Damascus and the US administration since Obama took office last month pledging a fresh approach to the Middle East and offering dialogue with states such as Iran and Syria that had been shunned under Bush.

However, this month alone, three separate US congressional delegations visited Syria, including one headed by Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Bush administration accused Damascus of turning a blind eye to the arming and funding of insurgents in Iraq and of supporting terrorism. It withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which was widely blamed on Syria.

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