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U.S. Relations Are Top Priority for Syria

JERUSALEM — During his recent interview with The New York Times, Syrian President Bashar Assad raised the possibility of normalization between his country and Israel. But he was really sending a message about the sour state of relations between Washington and Damascus.

When asked to explain what he meant by “normalization” with Israel, Assad replied, “Like the relations between Syria and the U.S.” — not exactly what Jerusalem has in mind.

While there are diplomatic relations between Washington and Damascus, Syria is threatened by a recently-passed American law — yet to be signed by President Bush — that clears the way for sanctions. Virtually no American investments are being made in Syria. And while the country has not been officially declared part of the “axis of evil,” the State Department continues to classify it as a state sponsor of terrorism. Syrian citizens find it difficult to obtain visas to visit America.

By suggesting that this would be the model for Syrian-Israeli relations, Assad was telling Washington: The quality of future Syrian-Israeli relations is dependent on Syria’s relations with the United States.

In the interview, published Monday, Assad did not seem to impose any preconditions for resuming negotiations, but offered a “proposal” to return to the point where negotiations were cut off in 2000, since “80%” of the issues had been resolved and there was “no point” in starting all over. Assad did not attack Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and did not rule him out as partner for negotiations. Nor did Assad mention — at least in the Times interview — the Israeli air raid on Syria last month in retaliation for the suicide bombing of a Haifa restaurant. He made sure to state that relations between Damascus and Hezbollah are based on “political support,” not arms and money.

Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, told reporters Tuesday that Syrian calls for renewed peace talks were “encouraging,” but said talk was “not enough.” Shalom said Jerusalem would “seriously consider” renewing peace negotiations only if Syria renounces terror, halts the supply of weapons to Hezbollah and accepts such talks without preconditions.

Whatever the Israeli response, there was nothing coincidental about the interview with the Times. It picks up where Buthaina Shaban, the former spokeswoman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, left off in an article she wrote last month, calling for a dialogue with the Bush administration and making clear that Syria believes the United States wants stability in the region.

Other official statements from Syria have struck a similar note; Syria is trying to send a conciliatory message to Washington. In the Times interview, Assad did not express forthright opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but argued that Iraqis should write their own constitution. Syria previously claimed that the war was causing instability, but Assad told the Times that he expects the United States to be a stabilizing force in the region.

Assad’s brief comment on the possibility of renewing peace negotiations with Israel, as opposed to his voluble explanations of the Iraqi matter and his disclosure of continuing Syrian intelligence cooperation with Washington, all point to the order of priorities in Damascus. Syria is very interested in getting a piece of the economic pie in Iraq. Assad is exploring the possibility of reopening a Syrian embassy in Iraq, persuading the Americans to allow Iraqi oil exports to pass through Syria, renewing the trade that reached $300 million a year before the war and winning some of the contracts for reconstruction work in Iraq.

To achieve these goals he needs a nod from Washington, which may have stopped using vehement tones in reference to Syria but still isn’t ready to let Damascus set foot in Iraq.

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