DAMASCUS (AFP) – US Senator Benjamin Cardin called on Syria on Wednesday to end its three-decade alliance with Iran as Washington reviews its policies towards the Middle East.
After talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Cardin urged the Damascus government to seize the opportunity of a new US administration to end the support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups that earned it sanctions from president George W. Bush.
“Syria has isolated itself by its partnership of terrorism, by providing safe haven to terrorist organisations, its relations with Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad, and a troubled relationship with Iran,” Cardin said.
“The question we came try to answer here is about whether Syria is ready to make important and significant decisions that will bring us closer together and move forward.
“It is an opportunity with the new president, Obama… Dialogue is important but actions speaks wider than words. We will be watching Syria’s actions very carefully over the next weeks and months.”
Syria held Turkish-brokered indirect contacts with Israel last year on the possibility of reopening peace negotiations broken off in 2000.
Damascus suspended those contacts at the end of December in the face of Israel’s deadly three-week offensive against Gaza but has since said that it is ready to resume them once a new Israeli government has been formed after last week’s tight general election.
Israel has long demanded that in any peace deal Syria end its ties with Iran and Arab militant groups. But Damascus insists that peace talks should focus only on the exchange of land for peace — in Syria’s case, the return of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said that the talks with the US delegation “focused on ties between Syria and the United States and the importance of developing them through a serious and positive dialogue based on mutual respect.”
They came as a British newspaper quoted Assad as welcoming Obama’s moves towards dialogue and saying he would like to see full diplomatic ties resumed.
“We have the impression that this administration will be different and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results,” Assad told the Guardian newspaper.
The Cardin-led delegation is the second congressional team to visit Syria in less than a month and John Kerry, foreign relations committee chairman, is expected to make the country one of his stops on a current Middle East tour.
During a visit to neighbouring Lebanon on Wednesday, Kerry said that the Obama administration would press Syria to help disarm Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as it forges ahead with a fresh diplomatic approach.
“We want Syria to respect the political independence of Lebanon, we want Syria to help in the process of resolving issues with Hezbollah and with the Palestinians,” he said after meeting Lebanese leaders.
“We want Syria to help… with the disarmament of Hezbollah.”
Assad described the visits as “important” and a “good gesture,” but said he hoped Washington would send an ambassador to cement the rapprochement.
The United States pulled it ambassador from Syria after the February 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing widely blamed on Syria. Damascus has denied any involvement.
Syria’s relations with the United States struggled under the administration of president George W. Bush amid accusations that Damascus was turning a blind eye to the arming and funding of insurgents in neighbouring Iraq.
Assad returned to the international fold in July with a visit to Paris, and since then, relations with the international community have thawed.