U.S. says still aiming for Syria-Israel peace deal

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The United States assured Syria on Thursday that its focus on a securing a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel would not deflect Washington from pushing for an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) meets the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in Damascus September 16, 2010.REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri

“Our effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in no way contradicts or conflicts with our goal of comprehensive peace including peace between Israel and Syria,” U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell told reporters after meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We believe strongly that a foundation of good faith negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis can and should support the entire structure of comprehensive peace,” he added.

The official news agency said Assad said told Mitchell that any resumption of negotiations with Israel -- which were broken off in 2008 -- has to be based on “clear foundations.”

“Syria is not asking for any compromises from Israel to achieve peace, but for restoring land that has been raped and should return in full to its legitimate owners,” Assad said.

He was referring to the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in the 1980s in a move the United Nations Security Council declared as null.

Mitchell accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who held three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders that ended on Thursday with no signs of progress on breaking a deadlock over West Bank settlements.

His brief trip to Syria as Clinton was leaving the Middle East shows the increasing consideration the United States is giving to Syria, which hosts exiled leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and backs Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.

Hamas is opposed to the talks between Israel and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There are some who are determined to disrupt the process. We are determined to see it through,” Mitchell said.

Assad has made it clear that only the United States can deliver peace between Syria and Israel while emphasising that Turkey, which hosted four rounds of inconclusive talks in 2008, must also play a role.

But he has stuck to a long standing demand that any talks must result in a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau which now has 20,000 Israeli settlers, as well as an equal number of Syrians under occupation.

Almost 10 years of U.S.-supervised negotiations collapsed in 2000, several months before the death of Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad.

Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton