Syria to weigh joining conference on own terms

DAMASCUS – Syrian participation in a US-sponsored peace conference could ease its troubled ties with the international community but Damascus is unlikely to back down on its terms, diplomats and officials say.

“Syria will decide on whether to participate after it receives an invitation,” Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said on Monday, while stressing that Damascus wanted a comprehensive peace.

He said the conference must be focused on “the imperatives for a just and comprehensive peace” such as the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and the Golan’s return to Syria.

“The United States and Israel are very mistaken if they are trying with this meeting to bring about a normalisation” between Syria and the Jewish state, the minister warned.

A senior US State Department official said on Sunday that Washington planned to invite Syria – as part of an Arab League committee tasked with following up on a Saudi peace plan – to the Israeli-Palestinian conference later this year.

The United States “recognises that its presence is necessary”, said a European diplomat posted in Damascus.

The diplomat, on condition of anonymity, said that Syria which hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and whose Golan Heights remain occupied by Israel would have to form part of any comprehensive solution.

He noted that Syria could benefit from taking part as it remains “isolated” from a number of Arab and European countries as well as the United States because of its alleged meddling in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq.

But Damascus has its reservations.

“If the conference turns out to be public relations exercise, it is not in Syria’s interest to take part,” an official told AFP. It wants a “clear agenda” and not only on the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process.

The official said Damascus wanted an “impartial and balanced” conference.

Syria demands the return of the entire Golan Heights which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981. Direct negotiations between the two countries broke down in January 2000.

It has come under international pressure over Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the Syrian official stressed that Damascus would “not give up on its support for the national resistance [against Israel] nor its strategic alliance with Iran”.

Tensions between Israel and Syria have been running high since the Israeli military’s covert air strike deep inside Syrian territory on September 6.

Syrian officials, while dismissing US and British newspaper reports of alleged nuclear ties with North Korea, have warned of a possible repeat of the scenario of claims made against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

Israel has kept silent on the attack.

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