Syria Is to Attend Talks in Annapolis

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will lead Syrian delegation.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will lead Syrian delegation. (Bassem Tellawi - AP)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 26, 2007

JERUSALEM, Nov. 25 -- Syria plans to send a deputy foreign minister to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis this week, government officials in the Syrian capital of Damascus said Sunday.

The announcement, carried by news agencies in Damascus, amounts to a diplomatic compromise by the Syrians, who had demanded that the return of the Golan Heights from Israel be placed on the meeting's agenda in return for their participation.

It is unclear how that issue will be addressed at the one-day conference Tuesday, so Syrian officials decided to send a delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to express its reservations.

Most other Arab countries, including influential Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will send foreign ministers, in a higher-level show of support for the Bush administration's effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace before it leaves office in just over a year.

The meeting is designed to inaugurate the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in nearly seven years.

White House officials reacted coolly to the news of Syria's acceptance and sought to play down any hope that the status of the Golan Heights would be a focus of the discussions. Briefing reporters, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said that the invitees were welcome to raise whatever issues they liked but that the focus of the conference would be Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"They were invited to come," Hadley said. "We will see what they have to say when they get here."

Also in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met over lunch at Rice's residence.

The Bush administration has sought to rally Arab support for the meeting, particularly among Sunni Arab countries that, like Israel, fear Shiite Iran's rising influence in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two such countries without formal diplomatic ties to Israel that will attend.

President Bush said in a statement Sunday that "the broad attendance at this conference by regional states and other key international participants demonstrates the international resolve to seize this important opportunity to advance freedom and peace in the Middle East."

But pre-conference talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did not produce a joint statement outlining the peace process to follow this week's largely symbolic gathering. The failure highlights how contentious the talks will be when participants take up issues such as the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel.

Even though a majority of the 22-member Arab League agreed to attend, Arab officials have expressed deep reservations about how much the conference will achieve, given the late hour of the Bush administration's diplomacy and the violent divisions within the Palestinian electorate.

Syria, whose Alawite-led government is an ally of Iran, has been even more reluctant to accept the U.S. invitation. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, later annexing it in a move not recognized internationally.

President Bashar al-Assad's government said it would come to the conference only if the territory's return received serious attention, a request the Arab League made in a letter to the Bush administration last week.

"Israel hopes that this is an indication of a change in the regime's orientation," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "But we'll have to wait and see."

Long a symbol of secular Arab nationalism, Syria is also important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its relationship with Hamas. The armed Islamic movement seized control of the Gaza Strip in June from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader who supports peace talks with Israel and plans to attend the Annapolis meeting.

Hamas's exiled political leader, Khaled Mashal, lives and works in Damascus. Israeli and U.S. officials have called on the Syrian government to close the Hamas office -- and those of other armed Palestinian movements there -- as proof of its desire to begin new peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas leaders, now running a parallel administration in Gaza, have warned Abbas not to make concessions to Israel in Annapolis.

Formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration and Israel. It was not invited to the conference and is planning a counter-demonstration this week that it had hoped Syria would attend.

"Syria feels it is under pressure from the world community, and the U.S. in particular, so if the Golan is on the agenda they will come," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official in Gaza. But, Yousef said, "Syria, like the other Arab countries, knows this will not be a historical event, only a show."

"This is like cycling without the chain attached -- a lot of effort and not one inch progressed," he said.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.

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