DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter predicted Saturday an improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations under President-elect Barack Obama and expressed hope that full diplomatic relations would be restored.
Carter spoke to reporters in Damascus following a meeting he held with President Bashar Assad. He said they had also discussed the reopening of an American school and a U.S. cultural center in Damascus shut down by Syrian authorities following a deadly U.S. raid in October on a village in northern Syria near the Iraqi border.
U.S. officials said the raid targeted a militant leader. Damascus says eight civilians died.
Carter said he had “full confidence” that Obama will carry out the promises he made during his campaign. “I don’t have any doubt that the situation will improve between the United States and Syria after we have a new president,” he said.
The former U.S. president said he hoped a new U.S. ambassador would be sent to Damascus soon. “It’s my hope that we can also see full diplomatic relations and friendship restored between Damascus and Washington at an early day in the new year.”
Washington had pulled out its ambassador from Syria following the 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which Damascus was widely blamed. Syria strongly denies the accusations.
Carter arrived in Syria from neighboring Lebanon where he spent five days talking to political leaders and offered that his Atlanta-based Carter Center monitor parliament elections there next year.
In his meeting with Assad, Carter discussed prospects for peace in the Middle East. He said Israel is sincere in wanting peace with Syria but stressed that no “genuine peace” could be achieved unless Israel withdrew from Arab territories it occupies in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
“You can’t expect genuine peace between Israel and any of its neighbors until it has peace with all of its neighbors,” he said.
Syria and Israel this year held four rounds of indirect talks mediated by Turkey, but the talks made no significant headway and it is not clear when the talks would resume.
Carter is expected to meet in Damascus Sunday with the exiled leadership of the Palestinian Hamas militant group. His first meeting with Khaled Mashaal in April drew sharp criticism from the Bush administration which labels Hamas as a terrorist group. However Carter said he intends to continue meeting with Hamas leaders “because the Carter Center is deeply interested in seeing peace come to this region, which needs dialogue with all the parties.”
Carter, who served as U.S. president from 1977-1981, brokered the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his conflict mediation while in office and afterward.
In a lecture he gave Friday in Beirut, Carter said Iran and Syria, both supporters of the Hezbollah and militant Palestinian factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, could have a major role in Mideast peacemaking efforts. Carter also urged President-elect Barack Obama to take a “leadership role” in the peacemaking process and said the U.S. should get involved in the Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel.