Syria Sets Conditions for Role in Peace Talks

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad yesterday rejected his nation's participation in U.S.-brokered talks on Middle East peace unless issues critical to Damascus, such as the Golan Heights, are included.

Syria's first high-level statement on the peace talks, planned for next month, may be an attempt to widen discussions aimed largely at a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. But Assad's rejection also could play into the Bush administration's preference that Syria not attend unless it moderates its position on several issues, U.S. analysts said.

In a rare interview with the BBC, Assad also for the first time confirmed an Israeli airstrike in northern Syria on Sept. 6, asserting that warplanes hit an unoccupied military compound. Syria reserves the right to retaliate and still is considering how to respond, he said.

"Retaliate doesn't mean missile-for-missile and bomb-for-bomb," he told the BBC. "We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways . . . If we wanted to retaliate militarily, this means we're going to work according to the Israeli agenda, something we don't look for."

After almost four weeks of surprisingly limited reaction, Assad said Israel's late-night airstrike revealed its "visceral antipathy towards peace," the BBC reported.

U.S. officials say they believe Israel hit a possible North Korean-supported nuclear site.

On peace efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that Syria, as part of the Arab League follow-up committee, would be included in the talks, which are expected to take place at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Assad said Syria had not yet received either an invitation or clarification on the meeting.

"If they don't talk about the Syrian occupied territory, no, there's no way for Syria to go there," he said. "It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace."

The Syrian leader, who assumed power after his father's death in 2000, said the latest U.S. effort, or any peace conference, was "an opportunity," but added that the talks had to be substantive. He joined a growing chorus of Arab leaders who are skeptical that the Bush administration is willing to broker talks on a final settlement of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Israel primarily is seeking a new framework for eventual negotiations on a deal.

At the United Nations, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged the Arab world to stop imposing terms for new talks at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are engaged in direct conversation on a possible joint statement of principles.

"As we have proven in the past, we are prepared for the territorial compromise that lasting peace entails," Livni said in a speech to the General Assembly.

A letter to Rice from 76 senators, scheduled to be released this week, says it is essential for the Bush administration to get "friendly" Arab countries to take bolder action to foster the new U.S. peace effort. The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, specifically calls for the Arab world to recognize Israel's right to exist, end its economic boycott of Israel and not use recognition as a bargaining chip for future Israeli concessions.

Signed by five presidential candidates from the Senate, the letter also calls for the Arab world to pressure Hamas, the radical Palestinian movement that seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, to recognize Israel and reject terrorism -- and for the Arabs to isolate Hamas until it takes such steps. In the meantime, the senators appeal to the Arab world to take "meaningful" financial and political steps to help the Abbas government.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company