Assad: Peace with Israel is possible

Syria's isolation to end with Sarkozy visit; Israel has no info on reports that Mashaal moved to Sudan.

assad paris 224 88  ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad paris 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad declared Tuesday that indirect negotiations with Israel have brought "the possibility of peace," although the two countries still have quite a way to go toward that goal. In an interview with France-3 television, Assad said officials from both sides, as well as from Turkey, were working to make direct negotiations happen. "Today there is a possibility of peace," Assad said. "But nonetheless, we cannot say that we are close to achieving peace. We are preparing for direct negotiations. When we reach that step, we will be able to say that we are approaching peace." "Today, we can only say that we have opened the door to peace," he said, in remarks in Arabic that were dubbed over in French. Despite his comments about potential peace, Assad said he believed that Israel "could try to launch different attacks, maybe against Iran, and maybe also against Lebanon, and of course it could launch an attack on Syria." He warned that such attacks would have "catastrophic results." Syria's isolation from the West will likely come to an end on Wednesday with the playing of La Marseillaise in Damascus to honor the visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the first Western head of state to come to the country in several years. Israeli officials said it was likely that other European leaders would follow Sarkozy to Syria, reasoning that if it was good enough for France, which has a special historic relationship with Syria and Lebanon, it would be good enough for them as well. Sarkozy will be joined in Damascus on Thursday by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa, and the three of them are scheduled to hold a summit with Assad. Qatar was instrumental in drawing up the compromise solution earlier in the year that brought a degree of political stability to Lebanon. Israeli officials said it was clear that Assad's acceptance of that compromise, known as the Doha agreement, as well as Damascus's declared intention of opening an embassy in Beirut for the first time, thereby recognizing Lebanon and putting pay to its claim to the country as part of "Greater Syria," was what led to Sarkozy's visit. The officials said Lebanon would be the highest priority item during Sarkozy's talks with Assad, but that Iran, the conflict in Georgia, and the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks would also be discussed. Sarkozy is expected to feel out Assad about the possibility of engaging in direct talks with Israel, something officials in Jerusalem said was unlikely without massive US involvement, a prospect highly improbable until after US President George W. Bush leaves office in January. Assad has on a number of occasions talked about direct talks under US and French sponsorship. Turkish sources said Erdogan would make clear that Turkey, which is currently hosting and mediating indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria, also wanted to maintain its high-profile involvement in the talks. Israeli officials said they expected Sarkozy would also raise the fate of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit - who also holds French citizenship - with Assad, but did not expect the Syrian president, who hosts Hamas's headquarters in Damascus, to do anything to move forward Schalit's release. "The Syrians fail to realize the importance humanitarian gestures would have on the Israeli public," one senior official said. "They don't understand the potential these types of gesture have in changing public opinion." Then-French president Jacques Chirac severed ties with Damascus in February 2005 following the assassination in Beirut of his friend Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon. Sarkozy has steadily improved relations with Damascus since taking office last year, and this would be the first visit of a French president to Syria in eight years. Israeli officials, meanwhile, said that a report in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai that Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal had left Damascus at Syria's request and relocated to Sudan was simply "not true." The paper, not known in Israel to be a reliable source of information, claimed that Mashaal moved out of Damascus because of Syria's interest in moving the diplomatic talks with Israel forward. Israel has long demanded that Syria kick the terrorist organizations headquartered in Damascus, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, out of the country, as well as end support to Hizbullah and move out of the Iranian orbit. Another senior diplomatic official, who also put no faith in the veracity of the report, said such a move would be a remarkable turning point for Syria, and a dramatic signal to Israel that Damascus was serious about negotiations. Such a move would lessen Mashaal's impact on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, simply because he would be further away, and would also place him - to a certain degree - under the influence of China, because it has sway in Sudan. "This would significantly alter the whole playing field," the official said. At the same time, he said, moving from Syria to Sudan would also make it more difficult for Israeli intelligence to monitor Hamas's political base of operations.