DAMASCUS, Feb 21 (Khaled Yacoub Oweis/Reuters) - Syria has indicated it is willing to help achieve a Palestinian unity government that could restart peace talks with Israel, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Saturday.
Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions, hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas and has influence on the Palestinian group.
Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government, Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar al-Assad.
If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution ... I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is expected to take part in Egyptian-sponsored unity talks between Palestinian groups on Wednesday. Washington supports Cairo's mediation, although it regards Hamas as a terrorist group.
The Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has historically been on poor terms with Damascus.
Abbas broke off peace talks with Israel during its 22-day offensive on Gaza but later criticised Hamas for what he described as reckless decisions that invited the invasion.
Syria backed Hamas during the conflict, deepening the rift between Damascus and U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Kerry, one of several Democratic lawmakers to visit Syria since President Barack Obama took office last month, said Syria had an opportunity to take advantage of the new administration in Washington.
I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region, Kerry said.
Assad had emphasised Syria's desire to have a dialogue with the Obama administration after years of tension with the United States when George W. Bush was in power.
Damascus supports the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and Washington has accused Syria of allowing rebels to infiltrate Iraq.
What I heard is great willingness to share, with respect to Iraq...I heard strong language about the hopes for Lebanon and the possibilities of providing stabilities, said Kerry, who is close to Obama.
My hope (is that) in the next days things will begin to emerge that can begin to signal that kind of different possibility.
Diplomats in Damascus cautioned that any thaw in relations between Syrian and the United States might not be quick. They said Syria was showing no signs of abandoning support for Shi'ite group Hezbollah, or changing its relationship with Iran.
A strengthened alliance between the two countries has irritated Washington although Obama said the United States could open a dialogue with the Islamic Republic.
Washington withdrew its Damascus ambassador after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut. (Editing by Robert Woodward)