US envoy arrives in Syria for Mideast peace talks

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — President Barack Obama's special Mideast envoy arrived Saturday on his second visit to Syria since he took up his post in the latest U.S. diplomatic outreach to a country deemed a state sponsor of terrorism.

Last month, George 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.

Mitchell did not speak to reporters after his arrival at Damascus airport Saturday.

He is to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday to discuss bilateral relations and the prospects of reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Mitchell later travels to Israel as part of U.S. efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

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 also in 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, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its intermittent peace talks with Israel.

Turkey has said it is prepared to resume mediating peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Syria also maintains close links with Iran, whose disputed nuclear program is a matter of international concern.

Mitchell's visit to Syria follows two separate trips in the past few months by senior U.S. officials Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert at the White House, as part of talks about improving relations with a country shunned by former President George W. Bush.

Ahead of Mitchell's visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country is working to rebuild its diplomatic relationship with the United States. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2005 to protest alleged Syrian actions in Lebanon. The Obama administration said last month it plans to send an ambassador to Syria, though no date has been set.

Al-Moallem, speaking in London after talks with his British counterpart David Miliband Friday, said Syria is looking forward to Mitchell's visit as "the first step of dialogue."

He said Syria would lobby Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights — a strategic plateau seized by Israel in 1967 and which Syria wants back.

During his June 13 visit that marked the strongest U.S. push yet to improve relations with Damascus, Mitchell said that Syria has a key role to play in forging peace in the region

The Obama administration has stepped up pressure onArab countries to help resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and also pursue a peace deal with the Jewish state themselves.

Despite the diplomatic overtures, the Obama administration renewed Bush-era economic sanctions against Syria in May as a way to keep pressure on the country to cooperate.

The Bush administration imposed the sanctions and withdrew its ambassador in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Many Lebanese politicians have blamed Syria for the killing — a charge Damascus has denied.

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