When recently asked by an Italian daily if he would like to meet his US counterpart Barack Obama, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said, "Yes in principle, it would be a very positive signal." He quickly added, "But I'm not after a souvenir photo. I hope I can see him to talk."
Several online publications have already speculated that a meeting was going to take place between Al Assad and Obama in Istanbul, Turkey, while the US president attends the two-day Summit of the Alliance of Civilisations that began yesterday.
According to veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh, "Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Al Assad in the first year of his presidency, without preconditions."
There are several indicators as to why such a meeting is needed, and should be pursued by Obama.
On Sunday, yet another congressional delegation landed in Damascus, headed by Stephen Lynch, a Democrat. Last week, the Syrian leader gave several press interviews, repeating his desire for peace with Israel if the Golan Heights are restored to Syria.
Syria also authorised the opening of the American Language Centre (ALC), closed down by the Syrian government after US warplanes struck a Syrian village near the border with Iraq last October, killing many civilians. It will be a matter of time before the Damascus Community School (DCS), the American school in Syria, is also re-opened, signalling Syria's desire for positive engagement.
The Syrians, however, want an American ambassador in Damascus, filling a post that has been vacant since 2005. To date, the Senate has not named its candidates for US ambassador to Syria, and sources claim this will not happen before October 2009.
Engagement for the sake of engagement, however, will not yield results. Once the ALC and the school are opened, and once an ambassador is appointed, both parties would need to move a step further, and this would be on regional peace.
Speaking to the Qatari daily Al Sharq, Al Assad noted, "There is no escaping the fact that the day will come when we will free the Golan, through peace or through war." Obama must grab at the opportunity to restore the Golan, "through peace."
Much has been made about the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel's new foreign minister, claiming that this drowns hope for resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace.
This is not correct, however, since never have peace talks been dealt with by an Israeli foreign minister. They will be handled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may engage with Syria in order to avoid striking any deal with the Palestinians.
Hersh, again, quotes a statement from Al Assad, saying that more than ever, "It is essential that the US play a prominent and active role in the peace process."
This is something George W. Bush repeatedly failed to do. If Obama pulls the right strings with Netanyahu, who had earlier refused to restore the Golan in full to Syria, including the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, peace is actually within reach.
Obama is busy with the exit strategy from Iraq. Last year, Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua'alem said that Syria was willing to help the Americans make an "honourable exit" from Iraq, words that were recently repeated by the Syrian President.
After meeting with Al Assad, Hersh commented, "Al Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can ease the American withdrawal from Iraq."
Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, repeated this to Hersh, saying, "Anything is possible, as long as peace is being pursued."
Many believe Obama is no longer interested in breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance, but rather, in benefitting from it.
Syria is a reasonable player that has no history of anti-Americanism. Syria can help in moderating Iranian behaviour, and the Syrians have already offered to mediate between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue. Far from marginalising Iran, Obama wants to engage it, and if this fails directly, he is hoping to achieve results through Damascus.
Engagement with Iran, restoration of the peace process, and an honourable exit from Iraq are all talking points that can bring the presidents of Syria and the US together.
Not too long ago, Richard Nixon decided to land in Damascus for a one-on-one with then president Hafez Al Assad. This was on June 16, 1974. Nixon was the first US leader ever to visit Syria, and the first ever to meet a Syrian president. Nixon, who came to Damascus as part of a regional tour to promote peace, was trying to divert attention from the Watergate scandal.
In 1977, Carter walked the same path in a different style. He invited the senior Al Assad to Washington DC, hoping that he can sort out America's differences with one of Israel's oldest enemies. Al Assad famously turned down the offer, and instead, the two men met in Geneva.
The result of both meetings was a short-lived Syrian-US honeymoon, disrupted by the Reagan White House and Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982. It was resumed under Bill Clinton, who visited Damascus in 1994.
Inviting Al Assad to Washington DC or bringing Obama to Damascus is probably too difficult - for now. It would be easier to arrange for a Syrian-US summit in some neutral territory- like Geneva - to deal with a basket of Middle East issues.
Sami Moubayed is Editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria.