World News

Assad says peace chances with Israel up in the air

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Western efforts to renew peace talks between Syria and Israel are focusing on finding common ground, but nothing has crystallized yet and the chances of success are unknown, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said.

In his first public assessment of U.S. and French moves to relaunch the talks, Assad told Turkey’s TRT television that envoys from the two countries are trying to accommodate Syria’s demands for the return of the Golan Heights and Israel’s security objectives.

An official Syrian transcript of the interview was published on Wednesday.

“What is happening now is a search for common ground to launch the talks. For us the primary basis is the return of the whole land. For the Israelis they are talking about security arrangements,” Assad said.

Assad said that if the talks were to resume they would be initially indirect, similar to the last four rounds that were mediated by Turkey and broke off in 2008 without a deal.

“There is more than one movement in the region, including France and the United States ... a movement between Syria and Israel to search for ideas, but nothing has crystallized yet, and we cannot know what will happen,” he said.

Assad last month separately met U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who is trying to rescue Israeli-Palestinian talks, and Jean-Claude Cousseran, who was appointed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to pursue the so-called Syrian-Israeli track.

The two envoys also visited Israel, which Assad said was scuttling peace efforts by Judaising Jerusalem and building settlements on occupied land.


“Talking about a mediation (between Syria and Israel) is premature and what is going on now is search for common ground,” Assad said.

He said Syria still wants a role for Turkey despite heightened contacts with the United States, the only power Syria considers capable of delivering a final peace deal.

“The question (now) is about negotiations. Who can succeed in managing these talks and solving the many knots that will appear and remove the big obstacles?” Assad said.

Israel, which wants Syria to distance itself from Iran and Lebanon’s Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, insists on talking with Syria without preconditions.

Damascus has stuck to its demand for a total Israeli pullout from the Golan, a strategic plateau that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, but has been softening its tone.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month that while Damascus would not compromise on the Golan, an Israeli commitment to restore the territory was a requirement for renewing the peace negotiations and enshrined in United Nations resolutions, not a precondition for talks.

Semantics could play a crucial role in resuming talks between the two sides. Almost 10 years of U.S. supervised talks collapsed in 2000 after an Israeli offer fell just short of total withdrawal from the Golan.

A U.S. official said after the Moualem-Clinton meeting in New York that Syria was “very interested” in pursuing peace with the Jewish state, as the issue of Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem threatened to stop Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly said Israel was willing to resume the talks without preconditions, although an adviser to his defense minister said last year that Syria may not be able to curb Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, a major Israeli calculation behind any talks with Syria.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by David Stamp