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And right next door to Iraq is Syria, which has been on the Bush administration's do-not-call list for several years. But now Washington and Damascus appear to be edging towards a new relationship.

The opening came last month when President Bush invited Syria to the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. Syria has been under pressure for what the U.S. views as its negative role in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Some in the Bush administration even advocated regime change in Syria.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus on the change in tone.

DEBORAH AMOS: Any Syrian will tell you that sending signals is part of deal-making in the Middle East. This week, positive signals were on state-run Damascus television.

(Soundbite of Syrian television newscast)

Unidentified Man: The American Cultural Center in Damascus organized an art exhibition for an American artist from New York.

AMOS: A U.S. cultural exchange - the first in years, the top item on English-language news.

(Soundbite of Syrian television newscast)

Unidentified Man: Nannette Carter, a professor of art at the Pratt Institute of Arts in Brooklyn, New York, started an art exhibition.

AMOS: It's a small sign of a new dynamic.

Mr. FAISAL MEKDAD (Deputy Foreign Minister, Syria): I don't want to speculate the visits of artists are big deals always.

AMOS: That's Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister. He wants an open door with Washington after years of tension.

Mr. MEKDAD: It's our hope that a new page is turned for better U.S.-Syrian relations.

AMOS: Mekdad attended the Middle East Peace meeting in Annapolis, shook hands with the U.S. secretary state. Told her, he says, Syria wants to be part of a Middle East deal.

Mr. MEKDAD: The role of Syria is pivotal. I mean, to our east there is Iraq; to the south, Israel; to the west, Lebanon, where the United States is claiming it has major interest. And without discussions with Syria it will be very difficult to solve any of these problems.

AMOS: Syrians talk about little else - Annapolis and prospects of a new relationship with the U.S. Ahead of the meeting, there was a stream of high-profile visitors to convince Syria to take part, says Rob Malley with the International Crisis Group. Malley says the Bush administration was divided over Syria's invitation. The case was made by U.S. allies.

Mr. ROB MALLEY (Middle East and North Africa Program Director, International Crisis Group): Palestinians, the Arabs - Saudi Arabia in particular - even Israel, all of them were lobbying the U.S. to invite Syria, each for his own reason. So I think ultimately, the Bush administration was convinced by the others who were crucial to Annapolis that it was better to have Syria in than out.

AMOS: It's a recognition that all conflicts in the region are now interconnected, says journalist Ibrahim Hamidi - Lebanon, Iraq, Palestinians and Israelis. And that Syrians play a role in all of these places.

Mr. IBRAHIM HAMIDI (Journalist): They have roles to play. But, okay, if you don't talk to the others then, I mean, you cannot play your role. So there - I think this is we're more moderate, more flexible in their demands and this why, in a way, they attended Annapolis.

AMOS: More flexible on a number of key issues, says Peter Harling, a Middle East analyst based in Damascus.

Mr. PETER HARLING (Senior Analyst based in Damascus, International Crisis Group): Well, Syria over the past few months has been making a number of signals.

AMOS: For example, closer ties with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, more cooperation on the Iraqi border, a key demand to the Bush administration. Syria has shut the transit route for Arab militants on the way to Iraq, says Harling.

Mr. HARLING: So Syria has been basically closing down the border. It has been doing a lot. And it's visible with all kinds of police, military outposts all along the border.

AMOS: Across another border in Lebanon, Syria helped break a political deadlock by backing a consensus candidate for president. Syria supports a coalition there that includes Hezbollah, which has been in a standoff with the U.S.-backed government. It's another sign of a new approach, says Andrew Tabler, an American journalist based in Damascus.

Mr. ANDREW TABLER (Journalist): Syria perhaps wants to show that it is able to move quickly. So if you're reading the signs and you look at Lebanon, you can see which way the winds are blowing between Damascus and Washington.

AMOS: No one here expects a dramatic fall with the Bush administration. Western diplomats talk of modest prospects. They note that Syria remains in an alliance with the most anti-American elements in the Middle East - Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran.

MONTAGNE: Deborah Amos in Damascus.

This is NPR News.

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