Syria upbeat on chance to reopen Golan issue

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 29, 2007 9:41am IST

A girl tastes berries grown on barbwire on the Syrian side of the Golan heights November 18, 2007. The Middle East peace conference has boosted Syria's campaign to regain the occupied Golan Heights, even though no direct talks with Israel were initiated at the meeting, a Syrian official said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

A girl tastes berries grown on barbwire on the Syrian side of the Golan heights November 18, 2007. The Middle East peace conference has boosted Syria's campaign to regain the occupied Golan Heights, even though no direct talks with Israel were initiated at the meeting, a Syrian official said on Wednesday.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Middle East peace conference has boosted Syria's campaign to regain the occupied Golan Heights, even though no direct talks with Israel were initiated at the meeting, a Syrian official said on Wednesday.

In the first official Syrian reaction to the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, Ahmed Salkini, official spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, said Damascus had made a diplomatic step forward by thrusting the Golan issue into the international spotlight.

"We have taken a step by reigniting the issue of the occupied Golan Heights. Syria's goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement was raised by major international participants at the conference. The door is now open for further international meetings to discuss Golan," Salkini told Reuters in an interview.

The Syrian delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal al-Mekdad, met with a number of other delegations, which Salkini did not name. The delegation departed from Dulles airport near Washington later on Wednesday.

Diplomats said the Syrians met with envoys from Saudi Arabia, including Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Relations between the two countries have been severely strained due to Syria's role in Lebanon and its moves to forge closer ties with Shi'ite Iran.

Russia has proposed an international conference in the first quarter of next year in which the Golan issue would feature prominently and that would be a major development, Salkini said.

Talks between Syria and Israel over the scope of a proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights collapsed in 2000. Israel occupied the area during the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.

Israel, which sat across the table from Syria at a closed- door session in Annapolis to discuss the Golan Heights, on Wednesday played down prospects of restarting peace talks.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was watching to see if Syria would "change policies," referring to backing by Damascus for Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip, the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon, and Iran.

Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said Syria had shown flexibility by attending the Annapolis conference.

"Syria has shown it is not as ideological as some in the U.S. administration (who initially opposed inviting it to Annapolis) had thought. Syria has sent a message to its Hamas allies that it is willing to bargain (with the United States)," Landis said.

The United States invited Syria at the urging of Arab states in a bid to broaden support for the conference.

Syrian officials say they perceive a turnaround in Western attempts to isolate Damascus, including contacts by France to persuade Syria to help stabilize Lebanon and an invitation to attend an aid conference to help the Palestinians.

"Three years ago Syria was a wallflower. Almost nobody spoke to it. Now Syria looks like a winner," Landis said.

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