DAMASCUS (AFP) — US Senator John Kerry met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday, SANA news agency reported, as Washington reviews its policies toward countries the previous administration regarded as hostile.
Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush and now chairs the Senate's powerful foreign relations committee, is the latest US legislator to visit Damascus this week.
His talks with Assad were set to focus on Syria's support for Iran and regional Islamist militant groups, including the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
"We want Syria to respect the political independence of Lebanon, we want Syria to help in the process of resolving issues with Hezbollah and with the Palestinians," Kerry said on Wednesday in Lebanon.
"We want Syria to help... with the disarmament of Hezbollah," added Kerry, the most senior US official to visit Damascus since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2007.
Syria dominated neighbouring Lebanon for three decades until April 2005 when it pulled out its troops in the face of international pressure following the assassination of Lebanon's former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Hezbollah, which is also backed by US arch-foe Iran and viewed in Washington as a terrorist organisation, fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006.
Kerry said in Lebanon that US President Barack Obama's administration plans to adopt a fresh approach in the Middle East "but without any illusion."
"Unlike the Bush administration that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe you have to engage in a discussion," he said.
"So we are going to renew diplomacy but without any illusion, without any naivety, without any misplaced belief that, just by talking, things will automatically happen."
Speaking after Saturday's meeting, Assad touched on that theme, saying it is necessary to "move away from a policy based on dictating decisions."
Future relations should be based on a "proper understanding" by Washington of regional issues and on common interests.
"Dialogue, based on the history of the region and the rights of its peoples, is the only way to understand and resolve problems," he said.
The administration of former US president George W. Bush repeatedly accused Damascus of turning a blind eye to the arming and funding of insurgents in neighbouring Iraq and of supporting terrorism.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Syria after the February 2005 assassination of Hariri in a car bombing widely blamed on Syria. Damascus has denied any involvement.
Another US senator, Benjamin Cardin, visited Damascus this week, urging Syria to end its alliance with Iran and make "significant decisions" to smooth ties with Washington.
"Syria has isolated itself by its partnership of terrorism, by providing safe haven to terrorist organisations, its relations with Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad, and a troubled relationship with Iran," Cardin said.
Assad returned to the international fold last year with a visit to Paris, and since then relations with the world community have thawed.
Before meeting Kerry, Assad met another US legislator, Howard Berman, the chairman of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, SANA news agency reported.
The diplomatic flurry was clouded on Thursday, however, when the International Atomic Energy Agency said it has found unexplained uranium particles at a remote desert site in Syria.
Syria insists that uranium found at Al-Kibar came from Israeli missiles that blasted the site in September 2007.
"It's nuclear material that hasn't been declared and Syria has to explain," a senior IAEA official said on Thursday.
On Friday Washington said it would summon the Syrian ambassador "to discuss our concerns," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
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