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Syria Talks Open, But May Soon Close

Last week, Syria and Israel acknowledged that they had held indirect peace negotiations. But a month after the Bush administration lifted its objections to Israeli overtures to Syria, Damascus is signaling a limit to its diplomacy unless the road to Jerusalem goes through Washington.

In a July 17 address to the Syrian parliament, President Bashar al-Assad disclosed that Israel and Syria had been engaged for some time in talks mediated by a third party, which was identified soon thereafter as Turkey. The disclosure is the latest sign that Jerusalem is pursuing dialogue with Damascus.

Since returning from a visit to Washington in early June, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered to hold direct talks on several occasions, most dramatically two weeks ago during a rare interview with the pan-Arab television station channel Al Arabiya. And last week the newly elected Israeli president, Shimon Peres, also proposed negotiations.

But while Syria and Israel alike have seized upon the Bush administration’s giving the green light to negotiations, Washington’s reluctance to become involved is raising concern that the talks are destined to dead-end.

“The Bush administration has lifted its veto on direct Israeli-Syrian talks, but this is not what Bashar wants,” said David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who recently returned from a trip to Syria, where he held talks with Assad. “He wants direct U.S. involvement because this will indicate an end to U.S. hostility and broaden the discussion to include Lebanon, Iraq and other regional issues of importance to Syria. This can only be done with U.S. involvement in open, public negotiations.”

One key indicator being watched in Syria is whether the United States will send back an ambassador to Damascus. The previous ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was withdrawn more than two years ago after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The United States and the United Nations blame Syria for the killing, but Damascus denies the charges, accusing Washington of concocting them in order to isolate the Baathist regime.

Given such mistrust, says Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief of the Saudi daily Al Hayat, hopes are not high for a diplomatic breakthrough.

“The Syrians believe that without U.S. sponsorship, the Syrian-Israeli talks could not succeed,” Hamidi said. “Syrian officials are very pessimistic now about resuming talks. The only possibility is if Syria and Israel impose a deal on the U.S.”

Late last month, President Bush signed an executive order barring entry into the United States by individuals who have harmed Lebanon’s sovereignty or its democratic institutions. The list includes senior Syrian military intelligence officials, as well as an adviser to Assad. Meanwhile, American military officers continue to accuse Syria of allowing insurgents and weapons to cross into Iraq.

With Washington maintaining a distance from Israeli-Syrian talks, Turkey has stepped into the diplomatic void. Ankara, which has good relations with both Jerusalem and Damascus, has in the past delivered messages between Israel and Syria.

A few years ago, Turkey initiated informal discussions between former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel and Syrian-American negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman. Those talks resulted in a comprehensive framework agreement, but both governments refused to endorse it.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that Israel and Syria have been in contact through third parties for some time, but he also told them that the mediators have been unable to get the two sides to resume official peace talks.

In his July 17 speech to the Syrian parliament, Assad emphasized that he sees no possibility for direct meetings between Syrian and Israeli representatives at this stage. He also made clear that “direct, open negotiations in the presence of an honest broker” — a direct reference to Washington, according to most observers — could begin only once Damascus obtained guarantees from Israel that the entire Golan Heights would be returned to Syria.

In a July 10 interview on Al Arabiya, a 24-hour news channel based in Dubai, Olmert said he “would be very happy” to make peace with Syria. He issued a direct invitation to Assad to hold talks, even as he charged the Syrian leader with being more interested in Washington than in Jerusalem.

“Bashar Assad does not want to sit down with me,” Olmert told Al-Arabiya. “He wants to sit with the Americans. The Americans don’t want to sit with him. I am willing to sit with him, if he is willing to sit with me.”

Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria during the 1990s, told the Forward that Israel was right to insist on direct talks, arguing that Assad’s demand for American involvement was “a step back” for peace efforts.

“We’ve had direct talks with the Syrians in the past,” he said, “and while you can have a third party activate ties, turning it into a mediator is a different thing.”

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