DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria's president told a visiting U.S. senator Wednesday his country wants to develop relations with the United States after several years of tensions.
Bashar Assad's talks with Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, focused on developing bilateral relations "through serious and positive dialogue based on mutual respect and joint interest in finding just solutions to the region's problems," Syria's official news agency reported.
His visit comes after President Barack Obama offered to engage countries that had been at odds with the U.S. He is to be followed by two more congressional delegations to Damascus this week, including one headed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.
The Syrian news agency said talks also dealt with Middle East developments and "what could be done to boost peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, in addition to the need to combat terrorism."
Cardin was quoted by SANA as emphasizing the importance of continuing dialogue between Damascus and Washington.
U.S.-Syrian relations have long been tense, particularly since the U.S. ambassador was pulled out by the Bush administration in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in neighboring Lebanon. Syria's army was in Lebanon at the time, but Damascus denied involvement and was forced to withdraw its troops.
In an interview published Wednesday in Britain's Guardian newspaper, Assad said that he has been impressed by friendly gestures from Obama but is still waiting to see results.
Assad was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying he is encouraged by the new U.S. president's promise to engage with nations that oppose Washington.
"We have the impression that this administration will be different, and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results," Assad was quoted as saying.
Assad said he would welcome the return of the U.S. ambassador. "An ambassador is important," he was quoted as saying. "Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria."