U.S. Envoy Finds “Common Ground” With Syria

First official talk with Middle East nation in four years called "constructive"

DAMASCUS, Syria — A senior U.S. envoy visiting Syria said Saturday that there is common ground between Washington and Damascus but cautioned not to expect an immediate breakthrough after years of tense relations.

There were few tangible results from Saturday's meeting, part of the Obama administration's effort to engage with America's foes. But both sides clearly showed they wanted better relations, despite lingering differences such as Syria's backing for militants and its alliance with Iran.

Jeffrey Feltman, top diplomat on the Mideast, said he had a "very constructive" discussion with Syria's foreign minister and a presidential adviser.

"We found a lot of common ground today," he told reporters. "But in terms 'do we expect this result or that result out of this particular meeting?' I think that's simply unrealistic at this point."

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The killing in Beirut was widely blamed on Syria — a charge Damascus denies.

Differences between the two countries "will require more work," Feltman said. "I would expect that the Syrians will be thinking about what we had to say, just as we'll be thinking about what the Syrians had to say, and each of us can look to see if there are ways to address the differences."

Syria, for its part, said the two sides were in agreement on the "importance of continuing the dialogue to achieve goals that serve common interests and bring about peace and stability to the region," according to the official news agency SANA.

America has long wanted Syria to drop support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas that oppose the Mideast peace efforts and hopes to peel Syria away from its alliance with Iran — two demands Syria rejects.

Washington would welcome Syrian help on Iraq, Lebanon and inter-Palestinian reconciliation, something the Syrians have said they are doing.

Feltman pointed out that both sides agreed on the benefits of a stable and secure Iraq.

In the past, Washington has accused Damascus of failing to prevent anti-American Islamic militants from crossing its border into Iraq, but Syria has said it was doing all it can.

The Syrians want a strong American hand in Mideast peacemaking to regain territory they lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Improvement in bilateral ties also could result in easing economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by Washington.

Feltman said the United States wants to see momentum on the Syrian-Israeli peace tracks when the parties are ready.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking during a visit to Turkey Saturday, indicated it was early to say which way relations with Damascus would go.

"We are just at the beginning of exploring the issues that we must discuss between us." Clinton said. "We have not decided on any next steps."

But U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who last month met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, went further than the administration's cautious approach.

He proposed several days ago that the United States provide "financial incentives" to encourage Syria to make peace with Israel. He said it benefits Syria if Assad looks West for new relationships and added that "sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks."

Assad has welcomed improved ties, something he has long sought, but was hampered by the Bush administration's attempts to isolate his country. Assad has said he is impressed by President Barack Obama's friendly gestures but was still waiting to see results.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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