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US seeks Syrian help on ME peace
Washington, Jul 26 (Agencies):
Published on 27 Jul. 2009 1:51 AM IST
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The United States has called for Syria’s “full co-operation” in trying to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. Speaking after talks in Damascus, Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell said discussions with Syria’s president had been “candid and positive”. Mr Mitchell said restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel was a “near-term goal”. He is now due to go to Israel in a bid to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Mr Mitchell’s visit to Damascus is his second since June, amid a renewed US push for peace since President Obama took office earlier this year. The envoy’s trip comes ahead of a string of visits to Israel this week by leading Obama administration officials, at a time when US-Israel relations are unusually strained. Mr Mitchell said he had told Syrian President Bashar Assad that Barack Obama was “determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace”. Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points. Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli prime minister. “If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full co-operation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour,” he said. Correspondents say the visit was not expected to bring a breakthrough, but Syrian officials have been encouraged by Washington’s new willingness to listen. Damascus is a major player in the region, because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close links with Iran. In the past, this made Syria a pariah in the eyes of the Bush administration, which cut virtually all ties with Syria, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava reports from Beirut. Washington is a long way away from getting Damascus on its side, but for now at least, the atmosphere of hostility which dominated during the Bush administration seems to be a thing of the past, our correspondent says. Syria was expected to lobby Mr Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights, a strategic mountainous area seized by Israel in 1967 which Syria wants back. Syria’s official news agency quoted President Assad as stressing to Mr Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.” Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the scale of a potential Israeli pull-back on the Golan Heights. The diplomatic flurry comes at a time of strained relations between the US and Israel. The BBC’s Middle East correspondent Katya Adler says Mr Obama has been leaning on Israel’s government unusually hard for an American president. Washington has called on Israel to stop all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but Israel says it will not curb what it calls “natural growth” there. Shortly before Mr Mitchell’s expected arrival in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped to reach an agreement with the US. “This relationship is important and strong. Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach understanding,” he said. As well as Mr Mitchell, US defence secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones are also due to hold talks in Israel this week. Our correspondent says Iran and its nuclear programme will certainly be discussed. Israelis say that is their top priority but arguably the focus of the visits will be the possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and also the wider Arab world, she notes.

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