- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

JERUSALEM | Syrian President Bashar Assad has lifted hopes about possible face-to-face peace talks with Israel following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus last week.

Mr. Sarkozy is the highest-level French official to have visited Syria since their good relations froze after the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A U.N.-appointed commission investigating Mr. Hariri’s assassination has implicated top Syrian officials. Syria, however, has denied any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder.

“We are talking about the future, the role of Europe and especially France in particular during the next phase, which is the direct negotiations,” Mr. Assad told CNN last week during an exclusive interview.

Syria and Israel have been involved in indirect talks in Turkey for the past few months. There have been four rounds so far, and Syria hopes to begin a fifth round shortly, according to a senior official close to the negotiations.

The Syrian government has put forward a six-point proposal outlining goals for furthering indirect talks with Israel, according to a senior Syrian government official. The Syrian government handed the proposal to Turkey to pass along to Israel, the official added.

Israeli government officials confirmed that they were trying to set up another round of talks with Turkish mediation but did not immediately confirm whether they had received a copy of Syria’s proposals.

Mr. Assad, however, stated that the participation of the United States was necessary, but not under the Bush administration, explaining that he would rather deal with the next U.S. administration, as he thought Mr. Bush had done little to advance peace in the area.

While Mr. Assad is extending the olive branch to Israel, he made it clear there would be no peace with Israel until it ended its occupation of Arab land, specifically the Palestinian territories, Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms and, more important, Syria’s Golan Heights.

The Syrian leader also continues to keep the armed option open, having recently returned from Moscow, where he attempted to negotiate the purchase of Russian weapons from the Kremlin in a bid to strengthen Syria’s defensive and assault capabilities.

Furthermore, the Russian charge d’affaires, Igor Belyaev, told reporters in Damascus several weeks ago that his navy would be making more use of Syrian ports as part of an increased Russian military presence in the Mediterranean.

“Our navy presence in the Mediterranean will increase. Russian vessels will be visiting Syria and other friendly ports more frequently,” Mr. Belyaev said.

Russia relies on Syria’s Tartus port as a main stopping point in the Mediterranean.

Israel’s chief ally and financial and military supporter, the United States, has reacted with caution to Syria’s attempts to negotiate peace face to face with Israel.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood stated that America wanted to see Syria play a more productive role in the region.

“I think it remains to be seen just how serious Syria is about engaging in peace discussions with Israel,” Mr. Wood said. “If Syria is serious about it, about making peace with Israel, I think what is important is to see actions, not words.”

However, the main sticking point for peace will be Israel’s lack of enthusiasm for giving up its occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights, which provides the thirsty country with access to the waters of Syria’s Lake Kinneret.

The heights also are home to large numbers of Israeli settlements, where the settlers earn a profitable living from farming the fertile soil.

One proposal being toyed with is for Israel to sell back to Syria its own land over a 99-year period.

Meanwhile, Syria’s regional proxy to the north of the Jewish state, Hezbollah, stated that even in the event that Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms are returned, the resistance organization would continue to challenge Israel militarily.

“We are not using Shebaa as an excuse to bear weapons. If the area is freed, the weapons will remain because we are talking about a defensive strategy against a threatening country such as Israel,” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the group stated.

The Israeli Defense Forces, meanwhile, continue to train and hold military exercises while remaining on high alert.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that Israel was “closely monitoring what is happening on the other side.”

These exercises were held at the same time as Israel’s counterterrorism unit warned of concrete terror threats against Israelis traveling abroad, especially in Sinai, Thailand and Turkey. The warning was based on new intelligence that Hezbollah intended to abduct Israelis.

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