George Mitchell, US President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, said on Wednesday in Damascus that the United States sought what he described as a comprehensive Middle East peace that included a deal between Syria and Israel and the normalization of relations between the two foes.
“Syria, certainly, has an important role to play in all of these efforts ... and that was the topic of our discussion today,” Mitchell said in a brief statement. He said he looked “forward to making tangible progress on our efforts toward peace and on the bilateral relations between the United States and Syria.”
Ties between Syria and the United States improved after President Obama took office, and Mitchell met with Assad twice last year. Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, a leading figure in Syrian foreign policy, also visited Washington.
Differences, however, persisted. Damascus has not hidden its frustration with the pace of ties with Washington. Syrian officials have said Obama should lift sanctions first imposed in 2004 for its support of militant groups and exert pressure on Israel to renew the peace talks.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000 over Syrian demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 war and later annexed. Talks resumed under Turkish mediation in 2008, but they collapsed after an Israeli offensive in Gaza that killed about 1,400 Palestinians. Israel now says new talks must be direct and begin without conditions.
Israel now has ruled out resuming Turkish-mediated talks with Syria, saying Turkey cannot mediate again because its criticism of Israel means it has lost its impartiality. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently courted France as a potential mediator instead of Turkey.
The official Syrian news agency said Assad told Mitchell that Turkey had an “important role” to play in reviving the talks and Israel had to “declare frankly” that it wants peace.
Syria wants an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights based on a UN resolution stating the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. Israel said it was willing to resume the talks without preconditions.
Israel and its chief ally, the US, want Syria to cool its ties with Iran as well as stop supporting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and help sideline them as armed players.
A Syrian source said Assad would continue to show flexibility with Washington, but only up to a point. “The late Hafez al-Assad used to say that the Americans want us to commit suicide. Bashar has limits to what he can give the United States,” the source said.
As of Thursday, Mitchell was having talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition party Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, while he will also have talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.
US Embassy officials in Ankara, when approached by Today’s Zaman on Thursday, said a stop in Turkey was not on Mitchell’s agenda for the time being.