Syria to Welcome Mitchell as 'First Step of Dialogue'

George Mitchell, the Obama administration's Middle East envoy, will meet Sunday with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus, ahead of meetings in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be Mitchell's second meeting with Assad since taking the post.

Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Friday that the forthcoming Mitchell meeting represents "the first step of dialogue."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more cautious in her language Friday, but she hinted that a renewed Israel-Syria peace track was being explored.

Turkey had been mediating between Israel and Syria until Damascus pulled out of talks in protest of Israel's military incursion into Gaza in January. Now Turkey has indicated that it is ready to restart the process.

Israel supports a peace process but objects to returning the Golan Heights (held by Israel since 1967) as a precondition to resuming dialogue. In London, al-Moallem said Syria would lobby Mitchell on the fate of the Golan.

Clinton said the U.S.-Syria engagement process was moving "one step at a time," but she added, "I think this is one of the issues that is being explored. As you know, we began a policy of re-engaging Syria when I became secretary of state, and working with our team here, Jeff Feltman and others from the State Department and the White House. And we think that it's a fruitful engagement that we intend to pursue."

When asked if there was a prospect that a renewed Syria-Israel track could then progress more quickly than a Palestinian-Israeli track, at present deadlocked over the settlements issue, Clinton responded that Mitchell "is exploring deeply with the Syrians, how they would respond to renewed negotiations with the Israelis, the timing on that, the simultaneity of it, that's all to be determined."

On the question of Syria's potential in exerting its influence over Hamas to respect internationally agreed conditions, in order to participate in a comprehensive peace process, Clinton said, "Hamas has to renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to the enforcement of prior agreements that have been entered into by the Palestinian Authority."

The secretary hinted, however, that there was room for discussion on the matter.

"If the Syrians or anyone else can persuade them to take a positive path forward, well, clearly, I think the Palestinian Authority and others would welcome that," she said.