June 10, 2008 / 5:27 PM / 12 years ago

Syria plays down chances of direct talks with Israel

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A senior Syrian official said on Tuesday no direct negotiations will be held with Israel until it recognizes what Damascus regards as requirements for a deal.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks out of his office before a meeting in Damascus, January 19, 2008. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel are expected to resume soon in Turkey, which has been mediating between the two sides since last year.

The Damascus government and Israel have kept secret the details of the talks. Syria seeks full return of the occupied Golan Heights and Israel has linked a peace agreement to Syria distancing itself from Iran and severing ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.

Israel occupied the Golan Heights, a water-rich plateau, in the Middle East war four decades ago. It annexed the territory in the 1980s in a move declared null and void by the United Nations Security Council.

“I think it is too early to resume direct talks. There are conditions,” Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad told reporters.

“I hope Israel responds to the requirements of peace, which are the end of the occupation of Palestine and the establishment of a Palestinian state, restoration of the Syrian Golan and pull out of remaining occupied Lebanese territory,” he added.

Israel and Syria said last month they had launched indirect peace talks in Turkey. Previous talks under U.S. auspices collapsed in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, which Syria considered as not covering the whole territory.

Mekdad declined to confirm whether the talks will resume next week. He said the talks in Turkey “were in their infancy” and Syria hoped that Israel was serious about reaching an agreement that would help stabilize the Middle East.

Syrian officials are wary that Israel’s interest in deal may be short-lived, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert facing a corruption investigation that could force him out of office.

“Our goal is an Israeli withdrawal from all the lands of the Syrian Republic. This is the basis for launching direct talks,” said Mekdad, a main player in Syrian foreign policy.

Olmert said last month that Israel had made no commitment to Syria to pull out of the Golan Heights in the indirect talks that started in 2007. Israeli officials have said Israel favored moving to direct talks but it was unknown when that would happen.

“When talks move to direct talks that would be a sign of significant progress,” said Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently dismissed Israeli demands that Syria abandon its alliance with Iran as a requirement for a peace deal. Assad said Syria intended to maintain “normal relations” with Iran while it conducts the indirect talks.

Editing by Dominic Evans

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