Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Syria urges better ties with US

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, file image
Mr Assad says his country is a "player" in the Middle East

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has urged the US in a newspaper interview to engage in talks with Damascus and restore full diplomatic ties.

He told the UK's Guardian newspaper the signs coming from the Obama administration had been "positive".

But he said there had not yet been a definite change of policy from the US.

Former President George W Bush largely shunned Syria, in protest at its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and its friendship with Iran.

But in his interview, Mr Assad said his country was vital to finding a solution to the conflicts in the Middle East.

"We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace, you can't advance without Syria," he told the Guardian.

Israel criticism

After years of diplomatic isolation, Damascus has seen a flurry of visits in recent months by leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

And Mr Assad said he was confident the Americans were also keen to engage in talks.

"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."

John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate committee on foreign relations, is heading a US delegation to Damascus later this week - a move Mr Assad described as "important".

But he added: "We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet."

On the possibility of improved relations with Israel following recent elections there, he said: "Betting on the Israeli government is a waste of time."

But he said he expected peace talks between Israel and Syria to resume "in the end".

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