Syria, branded by the US as a supporter of terrorism and accused of adding to Iraq's strife, hopes to participate in an Arab-Israeli peace conference that President George Bush wants to sponsor before the end of the year. If Syria participates in peace talks, it plans to push its desire to regain the Golan Heights – seized by Israel in the 1967 war – which has sparked serious debates among Israeli officials.
As the prospect of peace talks loom, Syria is also warning that an "arms race" could be ignited by the Bush administration's plan to beef up its military support to Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf States, Egypt and Israel, Reuters reports.
"Syria will support and participate in any international conference for peace. The objectives, participants and grounds for such an initiative must be made clear," [Syrian Foreign Minister Walid] al-Moualem said after meeting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in the Syrian capital.
"Bush has cast himself as a peace maker. He has to gain the trust of all parties and not start a dangerous arms race in the region," Moualem said.
The Jerusalem Post, a conservative Israeli newspaper, reports that Syria has been seeking to engage Israel directly over the Golan Heights, though its deputy foreign minister told Al Jazeera that its efforts are being consistently rebuked, saying: "All of Syria's peace efforts have thus far been snubbed by Israel."
That comment comes at a time of growing tension between the two states, with rumors in both countries of a possible military showdown some time soon if peace efforts don't move forward. Israel's influential Yediot Ahronot paper, which publishes in Hebrew, cites an unnamed source as saying Syria has directly threatened Israel with a "war of attrition" if it doesn't come to the table.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has reportedly messaged Jerusalem that if it continues to refuse to enter into negotiations leading to the surrender of the Golan Heights, Damascus will launch a war of attrition against the Jewish state.
Israel's Yediot Ahronot learned of the secret message, which was relayed earlier this week, and reported that it was accompanied by confirmation that Syria has opened the portion of the Golan that it still controls to renewed habitation.
Though the Bush administration has not said if Syria will be welcome at the Arab-Israeli peace conference, it seems unlikely given US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent comments that the $20 billion the US is giving to the Gulf States, the $30 billion it's giving to Israel and the $13 billion it's giving to Egypt is designed to counter the influence of Syria and its ally Iran, reports Agence France-Presse.
The US has also stepped up its anti-Syrian rhetoric of late, The New York Times reports.
President Bush said Thursday that the United States would freeze the property and assets of anyone trying to undermine Lebanon's democratically elected government — a move intended as a sharp warning to Syria and its ally Hezbollah.
The announcement, in an executive order and an accompanying letter to the US Congress, reflects heightened concern in Washington that Syria is trying to reassert control over Lebanon. It comes a little more than a month after the administration announced that it was enacting a travel ban, barring "those who have contributed to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon," possibly including leading Syrian intelligence officials, from entering the United States.
Taken together, the steps are an effort to ratchet up pressure on Syria at a time when the administration contends that it is helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq, as well as creating instability in Lebanon. Mr. Bush's order deems interference in Lebanon's government to be an "extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," and declares it a "national emergency."
Meanwhile former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the country's right-wing Likud party, is vowing a political fight if Israel's government opens talks on relinquishing the heights, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Israeli opposition leader made his prediction Tuesday during a pre-recorded address broadcast at 30th anniversary celebrations for Katzrin, a major Golan town.
"I remember the Golan Heights without Katzrin, and suddenly we see a thriving city in the land of Israel, which having been a gem of the Second Temple era has been revived anew," said Netanyahu, who opinion polls predict could win the next general elections. "This place will remain part of the State of Israel forever, but it will be much bigger and will continue to be beautiful."
The Likud Party chairman's comment appeared to be directed, at least in part, at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, given widespread speculation that he could enter peace talks with Syria in which Damascus would demand a return of the Golan.
Syria, which has seen relations deteriorate with some Arab states because of its alliance with Iran and the Shiite Hizbullah movement, appears to have broad Arab backing for its demand that the Golan be included in any peace deal, reports the Israel Insider.
The Arab League said yesterday that it would consider President George W. Bush's call for a Mideast conference in the fall to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on the condition that Israel concede the Golan Heights to Syria.
"Peace cannot be completed without withdrawal from Syrian territory, so all the parties have to be there," (Arab League Secretary General Amr) Moussa said at a press conference in Egypt.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that in a rare poll of Syrian public opinion, a majority favor peace with Israel in return for the Golan.
The poll was sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow, a bipartisan organization that seeks to erode support for international terrorism.
In the poll, 63 percent of Syrians said they favor their country working with the U.S. to resolve the war in Iraq. By a slight 44 percent to 39 percent margin, most said they oppose fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq.
Fifty-one percent said they would favor a peace treaty with longtime nemesis Israel if it withdraws from the Golan and recognizes Syrian sovereignty there. Israelis strongly oppose leaving the Golan, the boundary area between the two countries that Israel annexed nearly three decades ago.
Meanwhile, Daniel Levy, a former peace negotiator for Israel, says on his blog Prospects for Peace that it appears Israel is less committed to the US desire for regime change in Syria out of practical considerations, especially since one winner from any major political change in Syria could be that country's Muslim Brotherhood, which is aligned to Israel's enemy, the Palestinian Sunni militant group Hamas.
Indications are that Israel is far from enamored with the regime change policy. In fact, there has been a flurry of backchannel diplomatic activity between Israel and Syria over the past weeks. Israeli and Syrian sources have both confirmed Turkish mediation, and the Turks are not alone in playing this role. There has also been a conscious effort on both sides to ratchet down the confrontational rhetoric, and to take steps to avoid any accidental military escalation this summer.
As the backchannel messaging continues between Jerusalem and Damascus, the lack of an American willingness to engage is becoming a decisive negative factor. The Olmert government now seems serious in wanting to explore a Syrian option. The Syrian leadership is explaining to anyone willing to listen that it cannot be asked to move towards peace with Israel and the concomitant strategic realignment that this would require vis-a-vis Iran and Hizbollah, for instance, without receiving commitments from the US, that it will no longer be subject (to) a regime change and sanctions policy. Syrian sources actually consider that the dialogue with Israel is beginning to move forward seriously, while that with the Bush administration remains blocked.