Syria’s leader sent a July 4 message full of praise to US President Barack Obama on Friday and invited him to visit Syria — the latest signs Damascus is hedging its bets in Middle East politics, warming up to its rival the US at a time when its longtime ally Iran is in turmoil.
The US and its Arab allies have been hoping to pull Syria out of the fold of Iran and Islamic militant groups in the region.
Damascus so far appears unlikely to take such a dramatic step, but it does appear worried about Iran’s reliability and the long-term impact of that country’s post-election unrest. Also, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah suffered a setback when its coalition failed to win parliament elections last month, beaten out by a pro-US bloc.
Syrian President Bashir Assad has been expressing hopes for better ties with Washington for months. But the latest developments may make dialogue look even more attractive.
Assad sent a telegram to Obama on the occasion of the July 4 Independence Day holiday, saying, “The values that were adopted by President Obama during his election campaign and after he was elected president are values that the world needs today.”
“It is very important to adopt the principle of dialogue in relations with countries based on respect and mutual interest,” Assad said in the telegram, which was carried by state-run news agency SANA.
In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, Assad invited Obama to visit Damascus to discuss Middle East peace.
“We would like to welcome him in Syria, definitely. I am very clear about this,” Assad said in English.
Asked whether such a visit could take place soon, Assad said: “That depends on him.”
He said with a smile: “I will ask you to convey the invitation to him.”
The last time a US president visited Syria was a 1994 trip by Bill Clinton.
For the US, even pulling Syria only partly away from Iran and its militant allies would represent a major shift and could help ease Middle East crises. The US-Syrian rivalry has fueled instability in Lebanon, and the US and Israel say Syria’s backing of the Palestinian Hamas undermines the Arab-Israeli peace process. Syrian cooperation could make Obama’s fresh push for a peace deal take off.
The Obama administration has stepped up its wooing of Syria. The US is sending back its ambassador to Damascus after a four-year break over terrorism accusations. Obama’s special Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, became the highest-level US administration official to visit Damascus since 2005, and he acknowledged Syria’s clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in forging Middle East peace.
In a separate interview with Sky News, Assad’s wife, Asma, said she believed the Syrian and US leaders could work together.
“The fact that President Obama is young — well President Assad is also very young as well — so maybe it is time for these young new leaders to make a difference in the world,” she said.
In one sign of Syrian cooperation on regional issues, Damascus is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in ensuring Lebanon’s elections remained peaceful.