DAMASCUS, SYRIA — BY putting off the next round of Middle East peace talks for a month, Washington has given itself time to pull Syria and Israel closer together before they next sit down, in the hope that United States diplomacy can bring a breakthrough.
It is a hope the Syrian government clearly shares, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa's threat on Saturday to boycott the peace talks until ``the Israelis show they are serious in achieving results'' suggests he is confident Washington will act. (Syrian reforms boost eco-nomy, Page 9.)
US envoy Dennis Ross began a regional tour in Cairo yesterday, and diplomats both here and in Israel expect a visit from US Secretary of State Warren Christopher within the next month.
``If we continue negotiations in Washington, it is not because we believe too much in the Israelis, it's because we believe the Americans can make a proper climate to achieve some results,'' says Mohammed Heir al-Wadi, editor of the Syrian government paper Tishreen. ``What we need now is more active involvement of the United States in this, otherwise there will be no peace in the Middle East,'' he adds.
Damascus' faith that the US can and will pressure Israel into a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, lies at the heart of its policy in the peace talks.
``Syria's strategy is: one, rely on the Americans; two, rely on the Americans; and three, rely on the Americans,'' says one European diplomat here. ``The Syrian dilemma is that they don't have any options.''
Since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed their framework peace accord last month, the Syrian government's main concern has been that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will devote all his energy to the Palestinian negotiations, and ignore Syria for the time being. Doubting Israel
``Rabin thinks that his deal with the Palestinians might be enough to end the peace process,'' Mr. Wadi worries. ``But it isn't. If he is serious he will have to continue the process with us, on the basis of land for peace.''
The Israeli leader's remarks after the deal with the PLO was signed, that Israel could not move on two fronts at once in the peace process, ``mean that he wants to escape from the peace process as a whole, and that he is not serious,'' Wadi complains.
As far as Damascus is concerned, the only way to make the Israelis serious about giving back the Golan Heights is for Washington to apply pressure on Mr. Rabin. This is the message that Foreign Minister Sharaa took to Washington on his official visit last week and one that he asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to repeat when he meets President Clinton in Washington next week.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ``almost seems to be saying to the Americans `please do something now,' '' says one Western diplomat here.
Although President Assad has offered ``full peace for full withdrawal'' from the Golan Heights, Israel is insisting that the Syrians spell out what they mean by peace before discussing a withdrawal. Syria says it will explain no details until Israel agrees to the principle of a full return of all territories it has occupied.
``Both sides have a very proud attitude that the other should move first,'' the Western diplomat explains. ``That's what has blocked things all summer, and it requires a classic mediation effort, which is why the United States is involved.''
US efforts, however, will concentrate on who moves first, rather than on trying to persuade Syria to accept the partial Israeli withdrawal from the Golan that Rabin has proposed.
``The full Golan Heights is the only price, and they are not going to be shortchanged,'' a Western diplomat says. ``I have detected no interest in compromise,'' echoes another Western envoy. ``But if the principle of full sovereignty and eventual full withdrawal is accepted, the Syrians are ready to do whatever is necessary to meet the other side's security needs.'' Syrian push
Syrian officials seem confident that Israel will eventually accept that only a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights will be sufficient, but outside observers are divided over how urgently Damascus is seeking an agreement.
Pointing to the flurry of diplomatic overtures in recent weeks -
President Assad visited Cairo for talks with Egyptian leader Mubarak earlier this month, while Sharaa visited both Washington and Cairo - some diplomats believe the Syrians are anxious for a quick agreement.
``These aren't the tactics of someone taking a laid back attitude,'' one diplomat says. ``More and more we hear that the Syrians want a rapid resolution of the issues.''
In public, though, the Syrians say they can wait. ``We are not in any hurry,'' Wadi argues. ``We've been in this situation for 50 years and we can continue for another 50 years. Israel needs peace more than we do.''
Whatever Syria's real urgency, diplomats here are convinced that Sharaa, bereft of alternatives, is bluffing when he threatens to pull out of the peace process. So long as Damascus still has faith in Washington, as the European diplomat puts it, ``the Syrians are not going to burn their boats and pull out while there is still a prospect of getting something.''