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Reuters Edge

Syria seen keen on new peace talks with Israel

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Encouraged by President Barack Obama’s overtures toward Washington’s adversaries, Syria is pushing to restart peace talks with Israel, diplomats and political analysts say.

An Israeli soldier stands guard beside a ballot box during a photo opportunity of voting on Mount Hermon army base in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, February 9, 2009. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Damascus has intensified its quest to relaunch the Turkish-mediated talks, diplomats in the Syrian capital said, despite the formation last month of a right-leaning Israeli government that has shown little interest in a U.S.-backed two state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

“The Syrians are sensing that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu does not want a peace deal with the Palestinians and that he could restart the Syrian track as a way of deflecting pressure,” one senior Western diplomat said.

“They have dealt with Netanyahu before. More importantly they expect the Americans to try to salvage their policies in the Middle East by backing the Syrian track,” he added.

Obama sent two senior officials to Damascus last month to talk to Syria, in a break from a policy of isolation under his predecessor.

George W. Bush showed no enthusiasm for the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, which were formally suspended in December following the three-week Israeli offensive on Gaza.

The Bush administration also expanded U.S. sanctions on Damascus and criticized Syria’s human rights record, its role in Iraq and Lebanon as well as its alliances with Iran and militant groups in the Middle East.

One of the Obama administration officials who visited Damascus said Washington wants to see “forward momentum” on Syrian-Israeli talks, but the United States refrained from committing to any involvement.

Syria regards direct U.S. support to negotiations as a pre-requisite for a deal and the best guarantee that Israel would adhere to any peace arrangements.

Syria and Israel held almost 10 years of direct U.S. supervised negotiations that centered on the Golan Heights.

Israeli occupied the Golan in the 1967 Middle East War, displacing 100,000 Syrian residents in the water-rich territory. Around 40,000 people now live in the Golan, roughly divided between Israeli settlers and remaining Syrian population.

The talks collapsed in 2000 when Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, Bashar, turned down an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan but keep a narrow strip on the northeastern shore of the Lake of Galilee, which Assad regarded as Syrian territory.

Assad defined the occupied Golan as the territory Syria held on June 4, 1967, before the war broke out, including the northeastern shore of the lake, Israel’s main water reservoir.

Bashar has stuck to his father’s position, rejecting other geographical definitions, including one drawn by colonial France and Britain in 1923 that keeps Syria away from the water.

Assad said Syria and Israel were close to moving to direct negotiations before Israel launched its invasion of Gaza, and Syria had expected Israel to agree through Turkish mediators on the Golan boundary based on the 1967 line.

CALCULATIONS

Frederic C. Hof, who U.S. officials say is expected to join the team of Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, said it was far from certain that re-launching talks would achieve Syrian, U.S., or Israeli aims.

While Damascus seeks the return of the Golan, Israel and Washington want to see Assad separated from Iran, Lebanon’s Shi’ite movement Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, whose exiled leaders live in Syria.

Hof said in a report published by the United States Institute of Peace that American involvement in the negotiations was crucial for Syria to consider altering its alliances.

The report envisages a phased Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 line with intricate water, zoning and joint access arrangements to alley Israeli security, environmental and water supply concerns.

Cautioning that Syria would keep holding the alliances card close to its chest, Hof said Damascus could make “the requisite adjustments” to its ties with Iran and Hezbollah only if a peace treaty goes smoothly.

Syria has indicated that it was prepared to discuss a wide range of issues as long as Israel agrees to withdraw to the June 4 line, although Damascus remains wary of appearing to sell out its militant allies.

“Assad has let be known that the support of his people for a deal on the Golan might not extend too long into the future and the best solution would be for the United States to pursue a comprehensive Middle East peace covering the Palestinian and Syrian tracks,” one European diplomat said.

“It is far from certain that the United States will do this and it is still in a long policy review toward Syria, but one thing is clear, Assad wants to negotiate now a peace with Israel that would change the Middle East.”

Asked about the possibility of a deal with Netanyahu, with whom Syria negotiated with in his first term as Israeli premier in the 1990s, Assad told Qatar’s al-Sharq newspaper that Syria has a strategy for concluding peace and “whoever commits to them does not form a problem for us.”

Editing by Dominic Evans

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