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U.S. envoy Mitchell meets with Syrian president

Mideast envoy George J. Mitchell's visit to Damascus is aimed at persuading Syrian President Bashar Assad to back Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Syria, however, is said to be skeptical.

September 17, 2010|By Sarah Birke and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Damascus, Syria, and Beirut — U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell traveled to Damascus on Thursday in a bid to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to support Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

U.S. and Syrian officials said little about the meeting, but Syria is thought to be skeptical about the talks and prospects for its own negotiations with Israel.

Syrian officials don't believe Israel's leadership would be willing to return the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle Est War, and doubt an Israeli-Palestinian peace would last without the approval of the militant group Hamas, a foe of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that controls the Gaza Strip.

Israel restricts the flow of goods into Gaza in an effort to weaken Hamas, which does not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.

"Syria has been clear that before talks can take place, the siege on Gaza must be lifted, and that there needs to be reconciliation between the Palestinian groups, who all agree that talks should be made," said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst and editor of the English-language magazine Forward. "We currently have talks where the whole of Hamas consider Abbas illegitimate and have said they will not recognize the results of the talks."

Beyond their differences over Golan, Israel and Syria may find areas of common interest.

"What we hear in the media is different from what I hear from sources," said analyst Ayman Abdel Nour of the website All4Syria. "There is less animosity between Israel and Syria than it seems."

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

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