Possibility of resuming talks is remote

Syria has repeatedly over the past year signaled a willingness to resume unconditional peace negotiations with Israel, four years after the last round collapsed in Geneva.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has dismissed the Syrian overtures as insincere, saying Damascus must renounce its "support for terrorism" before talks can begin. The administration of US President George W. Bush has also shown little indication to get involved, effectively dashing any hopes of an imminent resurrection of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Syria faces unprecedented US-led pressure over a wide range of issues, including its alleged failure to cooperate sufficiently in stabilizing Iraq, its support for militant anti-Israel groups, including Lebanon’s Hizbullah, its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its meddling in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon. In September, Syria’s one-time European ally, France, sided with the US in co-sponsoring United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon, disarm Hizballah and Palestinian groups and cease interfering in Lebanese politics.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first indicated that he would be willing to resume talks "without conditions" with Israel in December 2003 in an interview with The New York Times. The offer was repeated–always relayed by visitors to the presidential palace in Damascus–in January and twice more in September and November, following the passing of UN Resolution 1559.

But, although Assad is offering unconditional talks, Syrian officials have indicated that the negotiations should pick up from where they left off in March 2000.

"Syria considers resuming peace talks where they left off is not a condition, it’s logical," Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah said recently.

The Syrians calculate that a resumption of talks with Israel will help relieve the pressure from the US and open the way for potential deals on Iraq and Lebanon. That does not mean that Syria is interested in the process rather than the peace–an accusation that was sometimes leveled at the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad.

Present and former international diplomats assess that the younger Assad is genuine in wanting to strike a peace deal and recommend that Israel take up the offer. Given the poor state of the Syrian economy and a spiraling birth rate, Syria has much to gain from a peace dividend, which could include substantial economic and financial assistance as well as the lifting of US sanctions and the end of its pariah status. Syrian officials maintain that a comprehensive peace with Israel will resolve its outstanding problems with the US and the United Nations, including the demands of UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Beyond the relayed offers from Assad, there have been other indications of Syrian goodwill. Most significant is the mending of relations between Damascus and the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and likely successor to the late Yasser Arafat, visited Damascus in early December, formally ending years of mutual distrust between the Syrians and the PA.

On a smaller scale, Damascus is planning to reconstruct the Golan town of Quneitra, which was destroyed by Israeli troops before being returned to Syria as part of the 1974 UN Disengagement Treaty. The town was deliberately left untouched by the Syrian authorities as a symbol of Israeli aggression. Damascus has also agreed to fulfill a request of Syrian Druze farmers on the Israeli-occupied Golan to purchase their apple harvest, a decision Israel has dubbed the "first trade deal" between the two countries.

Israel too has much to gain from concluding peace with Syria. First, it closes the circle of peace that began with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Lebanon can be expected to swiftly follow Syria in reaching a peace deal with Israel. Secondly, the lingering threat posed by Hizballah along Israel’s northern border will end. Hizballah will have little choice but to dismantle its military wing and pursue its anti-Israel agenda through peaceful means.

Several Israeli officials, including President Moshe Katsav and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have recommended that Sharon pursue the Syrian offer. Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli chief of staff, broke a taboo in August when he announced that Israel’s military superiority was such that it could defend Israel without the Golan Heights.

Yet the resumption of peace talks appears remote. Without a coercive shove from the Bush administration, Sharon feels little need to accept the Syrian offer, especially while embroiled in a tough political battle over the disengagement from Gaza.

Similarly, Bush is not inclined to ease the pressure on Syria at a time when the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

"Assad needs to wait: first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we’ll see what to do with Syria," he told a reporter from the Israeli Yedioth Aharanot newspaper during a White House reception in mid December.-