Assad’s second term may see softer US stance

DAMASCUS —  Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, starting a second term after an unopposed referendum on Sunday, has repeatedly offered to resume peace talks with Israel, only to rebuffed by the Israelis and their US ally.

But there are recent signs that Israel and Washington may be softening their refusal to test Assad’s overtures on a deal which would reshape the dynamics of the Middle East.

Israeli officials said on Saturday there was a growing consensus within the Israeli government that Syria was serious about resuming negotiations with the Jewish state.

They said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meeting with Syria’s foreign minister last month may have opened the door for reviving peace talks dormant since 2000. But it was unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would respond positively to Assad’s signals.

Until recently the Bush administration has spurned Syria as an “evil-doer”, insisting that it must cut ties with Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Palestinian militants if it wants an end to US sanctions and acceptance as a peace partner.

Some Israeli leaders say the United States has previously discouraged their government from probing Assad’s intentions. Certainly Olmert has echoed US demands that Syria abandon its Islamist allies before any peace talks can resume.

But Damascus is unlikely to throw away what it views as its bargaining chips before negotiations have even begun.

“The Syrians are serious, but not desperate,” said Syrian analyst Samir Taqi. “They are keen for peace. They are not missing any opportunity to send messages to the Americans.” The United States, beset by its troubles in Iraq and preoccupied by Iran’s nuclear programme, may now be listening.

A European Union official, who asked not to be named, said the US policy of isolating Syria seemed to be shifting towards one of trying to peel it away from its longstanding alliance with Iran by offering it rehabilitation for “good behaviour”.

For Syria, the key to any deal is the Golan Heights, lost to Israel 40 years ago in the 1967 war. Regaining them is a main goal of Assad, as it was for his late father Hafez Assad.

Assad says peace with Israel is a “strategic Syrian choice” but demands that it include the return of all of the Golan.

Regional realignment

 

A Syrian-Israeli deal could bring rewards for many in a region tormented by conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian territories, and threatened by the nuclear dispute with Iran. It would weaken, if not end, Syria’s support for Shiite Hizbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamist factions, as well as loosening the Arab country’s alliance with Iran.

Israel would get peace with one of its stubbornest foes —  although, after decades of mistrust, some Israelis fear the military implications of ceding the Golan, many prize its natural beauty and about 20,000 have settled there.

Syria’s determination to reclaim its land would be vindicated, its ties with diehard foes of Israel would be weakened and Assad’s legimitacy would skyrocket, analysts say.

For now, many Syrians remain convinced the United States is keener to punish their country than to explore regional peace.

They have long heard American charges that Syria is helping insurgents in Iraq and trying to regain its hegemony in Lebanon. US and Israeli officials also query Syria’s focus on the Golan, saying its Baathist leaders perpetuated the conflict with Israel to justify repression at home and stay in power.

But Syrian analyst Taqi said no Syrian leader could settle for less than all of the Golan Heights.

“If you go eight kilometres south of my office, you begin to see Israeli positions. Nobody can rule Damascus without making it a major priority,” Taqi said.

He said the real issue was whether Olmert had the political clout to embark on a peace drive with Syria and whether the United States would commit the sustained support it would need.

Promoting Israeli-Syrian peace may not be the top priority for a US administration preoccupied with Iran’s nuclear programme and seeking to disengage from Iraq without plunging that country into all-out civil war and perhaps disintegration.

Yet Syria shares some interests with the United States in Iraq, argued International Crisis Group analyst Peter Harling. For all its hostility to the US-led invasion, Damascus is fearful that Iraq might break up and worried about possible “blowback” from returning militants, he said.

“Syria is not a strategic enemy to the West or the United States, but if the Americans try to end the conflict without solving Syria’s problem, it will not cooperate,” said Taqi.

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