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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry Saturday. This is the latest in a series of contacts between the two countries.

Syrian government TV emphasized the importance of Senator Kerry's visit and showed President Bashar al-Assad smiling and gesturing energetically, as both men met to explore improving relations between the United States and Syria.

Relations between the two countries have been strained for years. Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah has been a point of contention with Washington. The United States also has accused Syria of allowing militants to cross its border into Iraq. Syria insists it is doing all it can to safeguard its long, porous border.

Relations soured further when the Bush administration pulled the U.S. ambassador out of Syria in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus has denied involvement in his death.

In the past few days, there has been a flurry of U.S. congressmen passing through Syria, including Senator John Kerry, who arrived Saturday - a further sign that Washington is engaging in a new openness toward Damascus.

President Barack Obama recently spoke of opening a new dialogue with old foes, alluding to countries like Syria and Iran, if they would "unclench their fists."

The State Department also announced Friday it has scheduled a meeting next week with Syria's ambassador to the United States to discuss outstanding differences between the two countries - the first such meeting in months.

A State Department spokesman said Ambassador Imad Mustafa was invited to meet with Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman next week.

The spokesman cited a U.N. nuclear agency report Thursday that said traces of uranium were found at a Syrian site suspected of being a covert nuclear plant. The State Department urged full Syrian cooperation with the IAEA.

President Assad told a British newspaper this week he hopes for a new relationship with the United States now that the administration of former President George W. Bush is over. The Syrian president also said he expects President Barack Obama to send an ambassador back to Damascus soon.

The Syrian government daily Techrine also refrained from its usual criticism of Washington in its morning editorial, insisting that a "serious and positive dialogue was built on mutual respect and common interests and [recognition] of Syria's important role in the region."

Senator Kerry also had some tough words for Syria, during a visit to Lebanon, Wednesday, insisting that Damascus must "respect the political independence of Lebanon [and] help in the process of resolving issues with Hezbollah and with the Palestinians."

Syria has yet to send an ambassador to Lebanon, despite the opening of an embassy in Beirut, last December.

Kerry equally criticized Bush administration policy towards Syria, noting that it was naïve to "believe you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it."

He went on to describe his visit to Syria as a bid to "renew diplomacy, but without any illusion or misplaced belief that, just by talking, things will automatically happen."

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