July 26, 2009 / 12:22 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. wants Syria help in Israel-Palestinian talks

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The United States wants Syria’s help in forging a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. envoy George Mitchell said on Sunday.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell before a meeting in Damascus July 26,2009. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri

Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy for the Middle East, said after meeting President Bashar al-Assad that restarting talks between Syria, which backs the Palestinian group Hamas, and Israel was a “near-term goal” for Washington.

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor,” he said.

The indirect talks between Syria and Israel, which were being mediated by Turkey, were suspended during the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip in December. Turkey said this month it was ready to resume mediation of those talks.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks backed by a quartet of international mediators — the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia — are also frozen.

Mitchell, who is on a regional tour that includes Israel, described his discussion with Assad as “very candid and positive” but he did not say what the United States expected from Syria, especially on Hamas.

The Islamist group, which has controlled Gaza since defeating forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, opposes Abbas’s approach to peace with Israel.

Hamas has also resisted international pressure to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

U.S.-SYRIA TIES IMPROVE

Syria’s support for Hamas has contributed to deteriorating ties between Damascus and Washington in the last several years, which improved after President Barack Obama came to office in January, and said Middle East peace was a U.S. priority.

Syria remains under U.S. sanctions but Obama has decided to return a ambassador to Syria. Washington withdrew its envoy in 2005 to protest against the assassination in Beirut of Rafik al-Hariri, a Lebanese parliamentarian and former prime minister.

“I told President Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” Mitchell told reporters.

Syrian officials privately say Damascus has played a role in bringing Hamas to a more accommodating position on peace with Israel, including recent statements by the group calling for the establishment of Palestinian state within the borders of land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.

Abbas has said he will not revive the negotiations unless Israel halts settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, in accordance with a 2003 peace “road map” that also commits the Palestinians to control militants.

Israel has been trying to work out a compromise on the settlement issue with Washington, linked with progress toward normalization of relations with Arab countries.

Mitchell said the normalization issue was “the ultimate aim” that a five-year-old Arab peace initiative also backs.

Editing by Robert Woodward

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