US envoy to Syria: We want to improve relations

The first U.S. ambassador to Syria in more than five years said Thursday Washington is committed to improving the two countries' relationship after years of tension.

Robert Ford said after presenting his credentials to President Bashar Assad that his posting is "proof that we are committed to try and solve the problems between our governments."

President Barack Obama bypassed the Senate last month and directly appointed Ford after his nomination was blocked by lawmakers.

A number of senators objected to Ford's appointment because they believed sending an ambassador to Syria would reward it for bad behavior.

The Obama administration had argued that returning an ambassador to Syria after a five-year absence would help persuade Syria to change its policies regarding Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and support for extremist groups. Syria is designated a "state sponsor of terrorism" by the State Department.

"Relations between the United States and Syria often have been challenging," Ford said, adding that his talks with Assad covered "some areas in which we hope to identify mutual interests and ways of addressing them that serve the interests of both of our countries."

President George W. Bush's administration withdrew a full-time ambassador from Syria in 2005 over charges the country was involved in terrorism and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Obama nominated Ford, a career diplomat and a former ambassador to Algeria, to the post in February but his nomination stalled after his confirmation hearings and was never voted on.

Since he came to power, Obama has reached out to Syria by sending top diplomats to meet with Assad. Washington is hoping to draw Syria away from Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.