White House Works To Improve Relations With Syria

U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell holds talks in Syria on Friday. The Obama administration signaled early that it wants better relations with Syria.

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President Obama's special Middle East envoy has a new stop on his tour of the region - Damascus, Syria. George Mitchell is expected in the Syrian capital today. Now, relations between the United States and Syria have been sour since the early days of the Bush administration. A glance at a map gives you some idea why. Syria sits between two troubled countries, Lebanon on one side, Iraq on the other. And the United States in recent years accused Syria of meddling in Lebanon, as well as allowing insurgents into Iraq.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it wants a fresh start, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: The Obama administration signaled early it wanted better relations with Syria. The Treasury Department approved the sale of American made spare parts to Syrian airlines despite U.S. sanctions. The Syrian ambassador in Washington was invited to the State Department for the first in years.

The arrival here, of Mr. Obama's special Middle East envoy and a high level delegation from U.S. Central Command signals a fresh start, says Assistant Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

Mr. FAISAL MEKDAD (Deputy Foreign Minister, Syria): We have always advocated a process of dialogue between Syria and the United States. And this is the beginning and we hope that the beginning is going to be a successful one.

AMOS: Official confirmation of Mitchell's trip was delayed until after the Lebanese elections. Washington backed the winners - the pro-Western block. Syria publicly accepted the democratic defeat of its allies - a coalition led by Hezbollah.

But Syria's influence in Lebanon is likely on Mitchell's agenda. His visit comes after the president's landmark speech in Cairo, calling for comprehensive peace in the region. Syrians note that Mr. Obama did not mention what they care about most - the Golan Heights, Syrian land occupied by Israel since 1967, says Mekdad.

Mr. MEKDAD: I don't think that President Obama has tackled all these issues in his speech. What Senator Mitchell is coming to discuss is what President Obama has mentioned and what he did not mention.

AMOS: Syria has a long agenda following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent pledge to work towards a thaw in strained relations. For Syria, that means lifting U.S. sanctions, returning an ambassador to Damascus, and getting the Syrian-Israeli peace talks back on track. But there is still distrust.

Professor JOSH LANDIS (University of Oklahoma): Well, this is, I think, the fear on the part of the Syrians is that America wants to cherry pick.

AMOS: That's American Professor Josh Landis, a Syrian expert currently visiting Damascus. He says Syria wants a discussion that goes beyond Lebanon and security in Iraq.

Prof. LANDIS: They want the complete package so if they don't move forward on the things that are meaningful to America without getting things that are meaningful to Syria.

AMOS: The Mitchell visit will test the distance between Damascus and Washington. Syria supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and has a strong alliance with Iran.

Former President Jimmy Carter, also visiting Damascus, says that Syria's alliances shouldn't stand in the way.

President JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think Syria's intentions are to have good relationships with the United States, to continue to have contact with Hamas and Hezbollah, to still have friendly relationships with Iran. But there's no reason why Syria shouldn't have friendly relationships with both, say, Iran and with the United States.

AMOS: Carter said that President Obama wants good relations, could lift sanctions and will respond to any positive sign.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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