- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria — The U.S. administration is determined to achieve a “truly comprehensive” Arab-Israeli peace settlement that includes normal relations between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, President Obama’s special Mideast envoy said Sunday.

George Mitchell spoke to reporters in Damascus after talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It is Mr. Mitchell’s second visit to Syria since he took up his post in the latest U.S. diplomatic outreach to a country listed by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism and snubbed by Mr. Obama’s predecessor.

Last month, Mr. Mitchell became the highest-level U.S. administration official to visit Damascus since 2005. He acknowledged Syria’s clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in promoting Mideast peace.

Mr. Mitchell was expected later in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he hoped to work out disagreements with Washington during meetings this week with high-profile American envoys.

Mr. Netanyahu is under U.S. pressure to freeze construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — a demand he so far has resisted. Washington also is concerned that Israel may be planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It wants time for Mr. Obama’s offer of engagement to Iran to bear fruit.

Mr. Mitchell described his talks with Mr. Assad as “very candid and positive,” saying he discussed with the Syrian leader “the prospects for moving forward on our goal of comprehensive peace in the region and improved bilateral relations between Syria and the United States.”

“I told President Assad that President Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” he said. “That peace means between Palestinians and Israelis, between Syria and Israel, and between Lebanon and Israel.”

“And of course, ultimately, the full normalization of relations between Israel and all of the countries in the region. This is what the Arab peace initiative calls for, and it is the ultimate aim of the effort we are undertaking,” Mr. Mitchell said.

He was referring to the so-called Arab peace plan, first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah in 2002 and relaunched five years later.

Mr. Assad did not speak to reporters after the meeting, but Syria’s official news agency later quoted him as stressing to Mr. Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.”

On Syria’s stalled peace talks with Israel, Mr. Mitchell said: “Our near-term goal is the resumption of negotiations. Comprehensive peace is the only way to guarantee stability, security and prosperity for all of the states in the region.”

Mr. Mitchell, however, said comprehensive peace required cooperation from both Israel and Arab countries.

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace,” he said.

The Obama administration had a series of meetings with Syria and hopes the diplomatic outreach will encourage Damascus to play a positive role in both the Middle East peace process and in neighboring Iraq.

Syria is seen as a major player in this process because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

U.S. and Iraqi officials long have criticized Syria for not doing enough to stop the use of its territory by Muslim militants who cross into Iraq to attack American and Iraqi forces. Syria says it is doing what it can and demands that Washington and Baghdad do more to control the Iraqi side of the border.

Mr. Mitchell said Washington will continue to engage Syria.

“In terms of the Syrian-American relationship, the United States is committed to a dialogue based on mutual interest and mutual respect and a solid foundation for discussion of our shared goals and of real differences, where they occur,” he said.

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