Carter predicts improved US-Syria relations
By ALBERT AJI,Associated Press Writer AP - Sunday, December 14
DAMASCUS, Syria - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on Saturday predicted an improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations under President-elect Barack Obama and expressed hope that full diplomatic relations would be restored.
Carter spoke to reporters in Damascus following a meeting he held with Syrian President Bashar Assad. He said the two also discussed the reopening of an American school and a U.S. cultural center in Damascus shut down by Syrian authorities following a deadly U.S. raid in October on a village in northern Syria near the Iraqi border.
U.S. officials said the raid targeted a militant leader. Damascus has asked for proof and said eight civilians died.
"I don't have any doubt that the situation will improve between the United States and Syria after we have a new president," said Carter. "It's my hope that we can also see full diplomatic relations and friendship restored between Damascus and Washington at an early day in the new year."
Washington pulled its ambassador out of Syria following the 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus was widely accused of being involved in the killing but has denied the accusations.
Carter arrived in Syria from neighboring Lebanon where he spent five days talking to political leaders and offered that his Atlanta-based Carter Center monitor parliament elections there next year.
In his meeting with Assad, Carter discussed prospects for peace in the Middle East.
He said Israel is sincere in wanting peace with Syria but stressed that no "genuine peace" could be achieved unless Israel withdraws from Arab territories it occupies in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
"You can't expect genuine peace between Israel and any of its neighbors until it has peace with all of its neighbors," he said.
Syria and Israel this year held four rounds of indirect talks mediated by Turkey, but the discussions made no significant headway and it is not clear when they would resume.
Carter is expected to meet in Damascus on Sunday with the exiled leadership of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. His first meeting with Khaled Mashaal in April drew sharp criticism from the Bush administration, which labels Hamas a terrorist group.
However, the former U.S. president said he intends to continue meeting with Hamas leaders "because the Carter Center is deeply interested in seeing peace come to this region, which needs dialogue with all the parties."
Carter, who served as U.S. president from 1977-1981, brokered the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his conflict mediation while in office and afterward.
In a lecture he gave Friday in Beirut, Carter said Iran and Syria _ both supporters of Hezbollah and militant Palestinian factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad _ could have a major role in Mideast peacemaking efforts.
Carter also urged Obama to take a "leadership role" in the peacemaking process and said the U.S. should get involved in the Turkish-mediated peace talks between Syria and Israel.
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