DAMASCUS: President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy said Saturday that Syria has a key role to play in forging peace in the region during a visit that marked the strongest U.S. push yet to improve relations with the country.
The Obama administration has stepped up pressure on Arab countries to help resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and also pursue a peace deal with the Jewish state themselves. Syria is seen as a key player in this process because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip and its intermittent peace talks with Israel.
"Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace," said George Mitchell, Obama's Mideast envoy and the highest ranking official to visit Syria since 2005 when the U.S. recalled its ambassador.
Syria and the U.S. share an obligation "to create conditions for negotiations to begin promptly and end successfully," Mitchell told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the capital, Damascus.
A senior Syrian official described Saturday's talks as "very positive" and said the two also discussed the situation in neighboring Iraq, where the U.S. has often criticized Syria for allowing militants to enter across its border. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to talk to the media.
Mitchell's visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior U.S. officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House. Feltman is currently in the country with Mitchell.
The Obama administration hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Syria to play a positive role in both the Mideast peace process and also in Iraq.
"I've held substantive discussion with President Assad and on the full range of serious issues in our bilateral relationship," Mitchell said. "We seek to build on this effort to establish a relationship built on mutual respect and mutual interest."
Despite the diplomatic overtures, the Obama administration renewed Bush-era economic sanctions against Syria last month as a way to keep pressure on the country to cooperate.
The Bush administration imposed the sanctions and withdrew its ambassador in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Many Lebanese politicians have blamed Syria for the killing — a charge Damascus has denied.
Syria has intermittently explored the possibility of peace with Israel over the past few years. The country held four rounds of indirect talks with the Jewish state last year mediated by Turkey. But the discussions were halted during the three-week Israeli offensive on Gaza that ended in January.
Syria has since said it is ready to resume indirect talks with Israel as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not willing return all the territory. He has also refused U.S. demands to commit to the creation of a Palestinian state and to halt settlement construction in the West Bank, hampering efforts to resume peace negotiations.
Direct talks between Syria and Israel under U.S. auspices failed in 2000 over the issue of the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.