US Middle East envoy George Mitchell held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday as Washington stepped up its push for peace with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also due in the region.
Mitchell arrived overnight for his second visit to Damascus since the middle of last month on a trip that was to take him on to Israel and the Palestinian territories later yesterday.
Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted the US envoy as describing his talks as “important and positive.”
He said that US President Barack Obama was determined to reach a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, the news agency reported.
Obama has moved to re-engage Damascus — a key regional player — as part of a bid to breathe new life into the faltering Middle East peace process.
Syria and Israel held four rounds of preliminary negotiations through Turkish mediators last year but Syria broke them off in December amid Israel’s deadly offensive against the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has rejected Syria’s minimum condition for a peace treaty — the return of the strategic Golan Heights which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.
The last round of direct peace talks between the two sides broke down in 2000 when Israel baulked at Syrian demands for the return of the whole territory right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish state’s main water source.
Relations between the US and Syria — which were strained under the administration of former US president George W. Bush — have begun to improve since Obama became president.
Washington announced on June 24 its decision to send an ambassador back to Damascus to replace the envoy who was recalled in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut.
The killing was widely blamed on Syria although Damascus has steadfastly denied any involvement.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Thursday that Washington was “also trying to develop ... bilateral issues that we have with the Syrians”.
Washington has accused Damascus of supporting “terrorist” groups, seeking to destabilize Lebanon and allowing transit through Syria of weapons and fighters headed to Iraq.
Gates is due to meet his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak today, before holding talks with Netanyahu, US defense officials said.
The flurry of diplomatic activity comes amid mounting frictions between the close allies over Washington’s demand for a halt to Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
Speaking before the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem yesterday, Netanyahu said that the US envoys’ visits reflected the “strong and broad relationship between Israel and the United States.”
But he acknowledged there were also differences.
“Naturally even within this friendly relationship there isn’t total agreement on everything and on several issues we are trying to reach that understanding in order for us to be able to promote our common interests of peace, security and stability,” the Israeli leader said.