- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Syrian and U.S. intellectuals, businessmen and opinion-makers concluded a three-day closed session of dialogue in Damascus Wednesday during which they held wide-ranging discussions.

The discussions focused on "the prospects for Middle East peace negotiations, the situation in the occupied (Palestinian) territories, the crisis concerning Iraq, adherence to U.N. Security Council resolutions, efforts to avoid military conflict, combating global terrorism and the causes of extremism," a Syrian foreign ministry statement said.

The dialogue was characterized as unofficial despite the participation of officials from both countries, including Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., U.S. Ambassador in Damascus Theodore Kattouf and the State Department's Christopher Ross as well as Deputy Foreign Minister and former Syrian Ambassador in Washington Walid al Muallem and the head of the ministry's foreign media department, Buthaina Shaaban.

The Damascus talks were the second round in an unofficial U.S.-Syrian dialogue, sponsored by the James Baker Institute for Public Policy and launched six months ago with a meeting in the United States.

The foreign ministry statement said the meeting was a "constructive and useful exercise in exchanging perspectives and dispelling misunderstanding about many current issues which are important to the region as well as for the bilateral relations" and that the "approach was solution-oriented to determine, despite differences, a common ground which can be built on."

The statement did not refer to Syrian and U.S. agreement or disagreement on the above issues, though both sides are known to have different views on defining terrorism, the Palestinian problem and Iraq.

Syrian-U.S. relations were also extensively discussed with a focus on the economic and cultural relations as well as cultural dialogue.

"Both U.S. and Syrian participants expressed the great value of this dialogue and their determination to continue with it in the future and make it even more productive," the statement said.

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