Photographs showing John Kerry, the US secretary of state, dining in splendour with President Bashar al-Assad have emerged, as Mr Kerry likened the Syrian ruler to Hitler.
John Kerry (who was then senator for Massachusetts) and his wife Teresa dined with the Assads in February 2009 at a restaurant in Damascus
Mr Kerry visited Damascus in February 2009, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said in a press conference during the visit: "President Barack Obama's administration considersSyriaa key player in Washington's efforts to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.
"Syria is an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region."
Mr Kerry met with Mr Assad at least six times, and on one occasion – seen in the photographs – dining with the two men's wives at the Naranj restaurant in central Damascus.
The restaurant, in the heart of Damascus's Old Town, is on a marble paved avenue named Straight Street, which was built by the Romans and mentioned in the Bible.
One of the city's finest dining establishments, it is housed in a converted old Damascus traders' mansion and has a rooftop terrace overlooking the bustling street below.
Mr Kerry was a strong supporter of the Obama administration's decision to re-engage the Assad regime and to send an ambassador to Damascus in January 2011 for the first time in five years.
Syria was, even then, viewed by Washington as a "state sponsor of terrorism", but US officials argued that returning an envoy to Damascus could help persuade Syria to change its policies on issues including Lebanon, Israel and Iraq.