In raid's wake, Syria turns defensive

President Bashar al-Assad met with North Korean officials this week as Damascus hardens against the West after a September Israeli airstrike.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The peace overtures were nuanced and often veiled.

But in the months before Israeli jets struck a Syrian military facility in the northeast of the country, Syria had expressed some interest in sitting down with its enemy to the south, Israel, to strike a deal on the status of the disputed Golan Heights.

Rime Allaf of Chatham House, a London-based strategic think tank, points to secret negotiations, reported to have been backed by both governments, that became public in January.

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It is widely suspected that during those meetings, the Syrian side made a number of serious concessions on the basis of which it was said that a final peace agreement could be reached between Syria and Israel within six months. However, both governments denied involvement.

Now, say analysts, while the response to an Israeli air attack has been not to reply with force, it has resulted in Damascus taking a much more assertive stance toward Israel and the US.

According to reports from American officials, the Israeli target in September was an undeclared Syrian nuclear facility, being built with assistance from North Korea, a claim unconfirmed by the Israelis and denied by Syria.

On the back of these recent allegations, Choe Thae Bok, North Korea's parliament speaker, visited Damascus this week in a show of solidarity between the two countries. Analysts say the meeting is another diplomatic signal to the West that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is unfazed by his foreign critics.

"The Syrians know that whatever they do, it's going to be used against them by the US and its allies" so they no longer care, says Thabet Salem, a Syrian political analyst. Although, he added, Syria has long had strong ties with North Korea.

During Mr. Choe's trip, he held meetings with President Assad and Syrian Prime Minister Naji Otari. North Korea "stands by Syria in facing the challenges and supports its legitimate efforts to return the occupied Syrian Golan," Choe reportedly said.

Also indicative of a shifting stance in Syria, Damascus is making strong demands as a condition of participation in the proposed US-sponsored Middle East peace conference to be held later this year.

Many Syrians say that the American government's initial reluctance, since reversed, to invite Syria to the proposed Middle East peace conference, to be held later this year in Annapolis, Md., and its refusal to place Syrian-Israeli issues on the agenda are signs that Syria's concerns are not going to be addressed.

Syria is demanding that the Golan Heights be on the agenda. It argues that the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967, is a key element to any regional settlement, and that by restricting the conference to the Israeli-Palestinian issue alone, the American government is only half-hearted about achieving a regional resolution.

"If they don't talk about the Syrian occupied territory, no, there's no way for Syria to go there," Mr. Assad, the Syrian president, said recently. "It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go."

Officials and analysts here have read America's lack of enthusiasm for Syrian participation in the conference and the Israeli bombing as signs of wider inconsistencies reflecting the lack of a real desire for an inclusive regional settlement involving Syria.

"The Americans are skeptical; their policy is skeptical, the same with the Israelis," says Salem. "If you are talking about peace how can you send your planes and talk about nuclear facilities?"

While critics cite Syrian support of groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip as proof that the regime does not want to reach accommodation with Israel and America, domestic commentators say Syria is looking for a deal.

"We really want peace, not because we are good people, but because peace means the return of Golan. This is the problem: we win with peace, we lose with war," says Mehdi Dakhlallah, former Minister of Information.

But to achieve that, he says, the US and Syria need to start talking. "Syria wants a big role for the United States because we know there cannot be peace in the region without them playing a big role."

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