The US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives in Syria today amid renewed efforts to revive stalled Middle East peace talks a week after the US president Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world. As part of a tour of the region and on his first visit to Damascus, Mr Mitchell is set to pursue the Obama administration's cautious pursuit of diplomatic engagement with Syria in a bid to promote Arab-Israeli peace.
The US envoy heads to the Syrian capital after a brief visit to Beirut, where he was to hold talks this morning with Lebanese officials following elections on June 7 that saw a pro-West coalition defeat a Hizbollah-led alliance. The state department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington that Mr Mitchell's trip to Syria and Lebanon is partly a "follow-up" to Mr Obama's speech in Cairo last week and that Washington rated it a "very high priority."
The Obama administration has been cautiously pursuing diplomatic engagement with Syria, which has long had strained ties with Washington, in a bid to promote peace in the Middle East. Jeffrey Feltman, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, and National Security Council senior director Daniel Shapiro visited Damascus last month for a second visit since Mr Obama took office in January.
In Cairo yesterday, after visiting Israel and the West Bank, Mr Mitchell urged Arab states to take "meaningful steps and important actions" to make peace with Israel, following talks with the Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. However Abul Gheit stressed that Israel should first take its own "serious" steps such as ending Jewish settlements a key stumbling block and reducing its military occupation of the West Bank before Arab states act.
"We are working hard to achieve our objective, a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel," Mr Mitchell said in the Egyptian capital. This includes "peace between Israel and its other immediate neighbours and full normalisation of relations between Israel and all of the Arab nations as contemplated by the Arab peace initiative," he said.
The 2002 initiative, backed by all 22 Arab League members, offers Israel normalisation of ties in return for a withdrawal from territory occupied in the 1967 war, a Palestinian state and an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Mr Mitchell was speaking a week to the day after Mr Obama vowed in Cairo to forge a "new beginning" for Islam and America in a landmark speech to the world's Muslims, promising to purge years of "suspicion and discord."
In Damascus, the former US president Jimmy Carter fresh from Lebanon for last Sunday's general election said on Thursday he believed Washington could lift sanctions on Syria and upgrade ties to ambassador level. Washington first imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 over charges that it was a state sponsor of terrorism, and they have been extended several times since. Ties deteriorated after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
Washington recalled its ambassador in February 2005 following Mr Hariri's murder, which was blamed on Syria, and no decision on a replacement has yet been taken. Ahead of Mr Mitchell's trip to Lebanon and Syria he flew to Amman on Thursday for talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II, a key player in efforts to steer the Middle East peace process back on track. * AFP