Tags: syria | israel | golan | peace

Syria to Israel: Golan Heights First, Then Peace

Tuesday, 16 Dec 2008 08:53 AM

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DAMASCUS -- Syria has drafted a document defining the boundaries of the occupied Golan Heights and was waiting for an Israeli reply through Turkish mediators, sources familiar with the talks said this week.

President Bashar al-Assad recently told Western officials that Damascus wants Israel to take a clear position on the territorial problem between the two countries before agreeing to push stalled peace talks forward.

The Syrian document sets the boundaries with reference to six geographical points, the sources told Reuters.

"The president was clear that Syria wants to know the Israeli view about what constitutes occupied Syrian territory before progress could be made," one of the sources said.

"According to Syrian thinking, Israeli agreement on the six (geographical) points could help seal a peace deal next year. But Israel may not be able to provide a response any time soon, when it is in such political turmoil," a second source said.

Indirect talks between Syria and Israel, which were suspended about three months ago after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to resign over a corruption scandal, center on the fate of the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it more than a decade later -- a move unanimously rejected by the United Nations Security Council.

The two countries held almost 10 years of direct talks under U.S. supervision that collapsed in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Bashar's late father, President Hafez al-Assad, refused to sign a deal that did not include the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a main water reservoir.

The late Assad regarded the northeastern shore as an integral part of the Golan and said that Syria was in control of it before the war broke out on June 4, 1967.

Israel captured the whole eastern shore along with the surrounding plateau in the war. The shoreline has been receding for decades. Under the Israeli proposal, Syria would have been only meters short of the northeastern shore.

Bashar has stuck to his father's line on the Golan.

A Syrian official said that the paper sent to Turkey includes reference to geographical points on the present northeastern shore of the lake. "The document puts us on the water," the official said.

Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said last month that "the Syrian definition of the June 4 line means the restoration of the northeastern shore of the lake to Syria" and described Israeli arguments about the shoreline receding as invalid.

Diplomats in the Syrian capital said that even if the two sides make progress on the territorial question a deal might not follow easily because Israel now wants Syria to reduce its alliance with Iran and cut support for the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist groups.

"The situation is more complicated than in 2000 with Syria's external ties coming into play. Syria also wants agreement on the six points without direct negotiations, which might be difficult," one of the diplomats said.

Syrian officials have said Israel has no right to set conditions regarding its foreign policy but acknowledged that the political map of the region would change if Damascus and Israel sign a deal.

Assad told his visitors that Syria had received a document from Israel through Turkey with queries about Syrian relations with neighboring states after a possible peace, according to the sources. "The president said Syria has responded, but he did not say how," one said.

Olmert, who is still caretaker prime minister, has said he wants to renew the talks. Turkey also wants the talks to move to a direct mode from the four indirect rounds that have been held since April, the diplomats said.

A foreign official who has met Assad said the Syrian leader was not enthusiastic about holding a fifth round before the Israeli parliamentary elections in February, although European leaders have urged him to agree to one before then.

© Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved

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