WASHINGTON -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to resume peace talks with Israel, and would like U.S. participation in those talks, U.S. Senator John Kerry said Wednesday.
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Assad during a visit to Damascus last month, before signs emerged this week of thawing U.S.-Syria relations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Tuesday that the Obama administration would send two senior U.S. officials to Damascus to work on bilateral ties.
Kerry said Wednesday that the Syrian president told him in their February 21 meeting that "he is prepared to resume peace negotiations with Israel and embrace the Arab peace initiative once again."
The Arab initiative, which dates back to 2002 and was sponsored by Saudi Arabia, offered Israel normal ties in return for the return of all Arab land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Syria would like direct American participation in these peace talks," Kerry added in a speech Wednesday on Middle East policy in Washington. "And we should play that role if our participation can help move the peace process forward."
Syria held indirect peace talks with Israel under Turkish mediation last year but halted them after Israel's military offensive in Gaza in December and January.
Clinton said this week that once a new government was formed in Israel, following its February 10 election, the Israeli-Syrian peace track would be on the Obama administration's agenda.
The administration of President Barack Obama has been reviewing U.S. policy toward Syria, including whether to return an ambassador to Damascus, a move the former Bush administration had been considering in the final months in office.
Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush.
The United States would also like to lessen Iran's influence over Syria as part of broader regional peace plans.
Kerry said the United States should have no illusions that Syria would immediately end its ties to Iran. "But that shouldn't threaten us as long as their relationship ceases to destabilize the region."
"I think President Assad understands that as a secular Arab country with a Sunni majority population, Syria's long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and the West," Kerry said.
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