LONDON, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued an informal invitation to President Barack Obama to visit Damascus for talks, in a sign that relations between the two countries may gradually be thawing.
“We would like to welcome him to Syria, definitely,” Assad told Sky News in an interview broadcast on Friday. “I am very clear about this.”
Asked whether a meeting could take place any time soon, Assad replied: “That depends on him.” Smiling, he added: “I will ask you to convey the invitation to him.” His comments came in a relaxed, walk-and-talk style interview conducted alongside his British-born wife that appeared designed to show Assad in a warm, congenial light.
Speaking in English, Assad said that if he and Obama were to meet, it did not necessarily mean they had to agree on the issues. “Any summit between any two presidents is something positive,” he said, adding: “That doesn’t mean you have to agree about everything. But when you discuss, this is how we can close the gap. “It’s normal to have differences between different cultures, between different nations and states. “But I think the United States has a special role as the greatest power. I think President Obama should visit as many countries as he can in order to make these dialogues… And of course, that includes Syria.”
The United States took steps to start talking to Syria after Obama took office, departing from the isolationist policy of George W. Bush, who put Syria in the “Axis of Evil” along with its three original members Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The U.S. government said last month it would send an ambassador to Syria after a four-year hiatus. The decision followed a series of recent visits to Damascus by high-level U.S. military and diplomatic delegations.
Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria in 2005 to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Damascus denies involvement.
Bush also accused Syria of offering support to insurgents fighting in Iraq, and imposed sanctions on the country for its role in Lebanon and for backing groups such as Hezbollah, which also receives support from Iran.
But Obama’s stated intention to seek common ground with countries willing to “unclench their fist” appears to have opened the way at least for basic dialogue with Syria, and the possibility of a high-level meeting at some point.
“An invitation is about dialogue, dialogue is about having common ground, a common vision,” Assad told Sky. “Then you have to make a plan then, later, you take action.”