Two visiting US Congressmen announced after talks with Syrian leaders on Sunday that they had secured a pledge that jailed dissidents would be freed and said they saw scope for progress in the peace process with Israel.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with US Republican Senator Arlen Specter (R) at al-Shaab palace in Damascus. Two visiting US Congressmen announced after talks with Syrian leaders on Sunday that they had secured a pledge that jailed dissidents would be freed and said they saw scope for progress in the peace process with Israel.(AFP/Louai Beshara) (AFP/Saeed Khan)
The upbeat note contrasted with that of US President George W. Bush earlier this month who ruled out direct talks with Damascus, saying: "My patience ran out on President (Bashar) al-Assad a long time ago."
Senator Arlen Specter, a member of Bush's Republican Party, and Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat, held talks with both Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
Kennedy said that he had secured Assad's undertaking that seven secular dissidents in jail for criticising the Damascus regime and its policy towards neighbouring Lebanon would all be freed.
"The president said that they would be released," Kennedy told reporters.
"(He named) Akram Bunni, Walid Bunni, Jaber Shufi, Ali Abdullah, Fidaa Horani, Mohammad Yasser Aiti and Ahmed Tohmeh. The president assured me personally that they were (to be) released."
The seven opposition figures had signed a "Damascus Declaration" calling for radical change that united communist, nationalist, liberal and Kurdish parties and formed a National Council to press for its implementation.
They were arrested in a mounting crackdown on dissent this month that drew harsh criticism from the White House.
Bush applauded the formation of the opposition grouping, saying "the brave men and women who formed this council reflect the desires of the majority of Syrian people to live in freedom, democracy, and peace."
Specter also sounded an upbeat note about the prospects for movement on the peace process between Syria and Israel which has been frozen since 2000, saying it was now generally accepted that Israel would have to return the Golan Heights which it seized in 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981.
"Syrians and Israelis are in a position to proceed to have a peace treaty," the senator said.
"The parties are going to have to continue talks through intermediaries.
"The core of any agreement is accepted that Golan Heights will have to come back (to Syria).
"It is fair to say that if there is no Golan Heights there is no deal."
Specter said that any agreement would have to address Israeli concerns about Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, both of which are supported by Damascus.
"There are questions about security and about confidence building. There are problems with Hamas and Hezbollah and there's a perception that Syria could be helpful in those matters," he said.
"(Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert is concerned about Hezbollah."
Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down seven years ago when Israel baulked at returning the whole of the Golan Heights right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, its main water source.
Israeli cabinet ministers have confirmed that there have been renewed contacts through intermediaries this year seeking to relaunch the negotiations, and Syria sent an envoy to a peace conference in the United States last month.
The Syrian president told the US Congressmen that Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad had taken part in the conference in Annapolis outside Washinngton in a bid to jumpstart the peace process.
"Syria favours peace as a strategic choice. It welcomes any effort liable to lead to peace," the official SANA news agency quoted Assad as saying.
"It was with this aim that Syria took part in the Annapolis conference."