Is Syria serious about peace with Israel?

Syria is indicating with increasing frequency a willingness to resume peace negotiations with archenemy Israel after more than four years of deadlock.

The revival of the Syrian-Israeli track of the Middle East peace process could help deflect the intense pressure Syria is facing from the international community over its policies toward neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. The conclusion of a peace deal would see the return of occupied Syrian territory and open the country to much-needed economic assistance.

Still, an imminent resumption of talks appears unlikely given Israel's skepticism over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's motives and the reluctance of Washington to intercede. And that would be a mistake, say some analysts who believe Assad is sincere and that Israel is missing a chance to "close the circle of peace" with its Arab neighbors.

"Does [President Assad] believe that peace is in the regime's best interests? I believe he does," says Joshua Landis, assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria. "Most Syrians are ready for peace and are tired of being viewed by the world as a terrorist pariah."

The latest offer from President Assad was relayed last week by Terje Roed-Larsen, the outgoing United Nations envoy to the Middle peace process.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus after meeting with the Syrian leader, Mr. Larsen said, "President Assad has reiterated to me today that he has an outstretched hand to his Israeli counterparts and that he is willing to go to the table without conditions."

But the Israeli government responded that if Assad was serious he first would have to crack down on Lebanon's Hizbullah organization and Palestinian groups based in Damascus. "Syria should translate words into action by shutting Palestinian offices and military bases in Damascus and stop relaying missiles to Hizbullah from Iran via Damascus airport," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Assad first signaled a willingness to resume talks with Israel in an interview with The New York Times in December last year. Since then he has repeated his offer at least five more times.

But analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no interest in reviving talks with Syria while concentrating on the Palestinian track and planning next year's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. And Washington, which has stepped up pressure on Damascus in recent months, is not inclined to prod Mr. Sharon into accepting Assad's offer.

Not all Israeli officials appear to agree with Mr. Sharon, however. Israeli President Moshe Katsav was quoted last Thursday in Israel's Maariv daily as saying he thought it was "important and worthwhile" to assess Assad's intentions.

Senior Israeli military officials have said Israel should take advantage of Syria's diplomatic isolation to cut the best possible deal. Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Israel's chief of staff, broke a longstanding taboo in August when he declared that Israel's military superiority meant that it could afford to relinquish the strategic Golan Heights, the volcanic plateau captured by Israel in 1967 that lies at the heart of the Israeli-Syrian peace process.

The last bout of negotiations between Israel and Syria collapsed in March 2000, when Israel refused to hand back a narrow strip of land running along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of the Golan. Syria insists that Israel must return all the territory seized in the 1967 war.

Those who have met with Assad in recent months tend to believe he is sincere in his desire to revive the peace process with Israel.

Speaking in September after hearing the same offer from Assad, Edward Gabriel, vice-chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon and a former US ambassador to Morocco, told the Monitor that the Syrian leader was displaying a "genuine consistency" that convinced him it was a "serious attempt" to revive peace talks.

Ibrahim Hamidi, Syrian correspondent of the pan Arab Al-Hayat daily, says he believes that Assad is "serious and sincere" in desiring renewed negotiations.

"I think he is showing a flexibility about restarting talks," Mr. Hamidi says.

Damascus would have much to gain from a peace deal. It would improve relations with the US and open up the country to vital economic investment. Professor Landis said that President Assad is looking to turn his county into "the Middle East tiger."

"Uppermost on his mind these days is how he can get his economy to grow at 6 percent or 7 percent a year," he says. "That is the only way his regime will survive in the long run and cope with the 25 percent unemployment and 300,000 new youths who stream into the economy each year."

On the other hand, the rate of Assad's overtures picked up noticeably from September when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559 demanding Syria withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon and for the Syrian-backed Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah and Palestinian militias.

Earlier in the year, the US imposed limited sanctions against Syria over its alleged failure to cooperate in stabilizing Iraq, with which it shares a 400-mile border, and its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Rarely has Syria been on the receiving end of so much international pressure.

"I think Syria would like an agreement with Israel but Assad's offers also are an effort to reduce the pressure of 1559," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst.

"I think the Syrians want to be locked up in the process of negotiations but I am not sure that they are in much of a hurry for a settlement," he says.

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