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U.S. lawmakers pay Damascus a visit

The pair stops by on a peacekeeping mission, urging Syria to revive a dormant dialogue with Israel and drop Iran.

December 31, 2007|Ziad Haydar and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — A pair of U.S. lawmakers visited the Syrian capital on Sunday in an attempt to persuade the Arab state to make peace with Israel and woo it from the Iranian sphere of influence.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) visited Syria after a trip to neighboring Israel, which gave its blessing to the lawmakers' mediation effort. Israel and Syria have been in a state of war for decades despite occasional diplomatic forays between the two nations.

Israel hopes to draw the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad out of its alliances with Iran, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, all of which oppose the Jewish state.

Specter said he hoped U.S. intervention would revive a dormant dialogue between Syria and Israel.

"The time is right now, and prospects are very good," Specter told reporters Sunday on his 16th visit to Syria since 1984. "The parties will continue talks through intermediaries, and it's my hope and expectation at some point, if preliminary progress has been made, the U.S. government would be ready too."

Still, Syrian officials voiced doubt that much would come out of the mediation effort as long as there is no movement on the issue of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Peace talks between the two countries collapsed in 2000 over the extent of an Israeli pullout from the plateau. In one poll this year, only 10% of Israelis supported a full withdrawal.

"Syria will appreciate any positive act to push for resumption of the peace process, but going into the details of the negotiations will need a different process," said a Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is no point of a peace process on the Israeli-Syrian track if the occupied Golan Heights are not guaranteed back."

Another possible irritant in the relations is an Israeli airstrike against an unspecified military target deep inside Syria in September.

The U.S. maintains chilly diplomatic relations with Syria over its alleged interference in Lebanese affairs and its support for militant groups that oppose Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas. This month, President Bush accused Syria of contributing to the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon and said he had lost patience with Assad.

Specter told reporters that he came in part to convey messages, gleaned from conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other officials, to Assad and his deputies, including Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

He told reporters that he would convey Syrian responses to Washington and Israeli officials along with his "sense of what should happen next."

He said that Israel understands that any peace treaty with Syria must include a return of the Golan Heights.

"I am confident that Olmert wants to have a peace treaty with Syria and he is ready to do what is necessary in a reciprocal arrangement to get it done," the senator told reporters.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Haydar reported from Damascus and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.

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