Golan Heights 224 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel is not overly concerned US-Syrian talks will result in its being asked to give up the Golan Heights in return for Syrian aid to the US in Iraq, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said Sunday.
The Sunday Times quoted Ayman Abdel Nour, an official of the ruling Syrian Ba'ath party, as saying that President Bashar Assad's "top demand" of the United States and Britain will be that the allies use their influence with Israel to raise the Golan issue.
Abdel Nour's comments follow a report in The New York Times last week that former US secretary of state James Baker, who is now co-chairman of a bipartisan panel examining US strategic options in Iraq, met a number of times recently with Syrian officials to discuss how they might cooperate with the US.
The New York Times quoted Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha as saying that Baker asked Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem at a meeting in New York in September, "What would it take Syria to help on Iraq?" Although Abdel Nour indicated that the Golan would be the key, diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said this was largely rhetoric.
According to these officials, Baker represents a school of thought that believes the US should engage both Syria and Iran, and that it may be possible to get the Syrians to play a more constructive role both in Iraq and in Lebanon.
"Of course it comes at a price, and I'm not sure the Americans are willing to pay the price," one Israeli official said. He said that the price was not the Golan, but rather to get the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime Minister Rafiq Hariri called off, and to allow Syrian influence and involvement - although maybe not troops - in Lebanon.
"The Syrians are terrified by the prospect of the tribunal," the official said, "and they want it called off. That is their top priority, and as a by-product they want to keep a hold on Lebanon."
The Golan was "in no way" the top agenda item for Assad, he said, who was concerned that the tribunal could actually threaten his regime.
"Assad's regime is a small Alawite clique, with some Sunni allies," the official explained. "If some of the cornerstones of this very small and tight clique are taken out to be tried, judged and convicted, then the whole building may collapse and this is what Assad is worried about."
The official said Assad knew who would be implicated and tried, and that - if not Assad himself - it was people "very, very close to him, the top officials of the regime."
According to this school of thought, the Syrians would not put the Golan on the table with the US at this time, other than perhaps extracting a promise that if all went well in their discussion with Washington, there would be assurances that talks with Israel could begin next year.
"But this is not their No. 1 priority," the official said. "Their survival is their No. 1 priority."
Abdel Nour, meanwhile, said in the Sunday Times interview, "The Syrian leadership is fed up with the Americans and does not trust their word when it comes to future aid for Syria."
"Syria will not do anything unless it has secured guarantees from Washington and London that every action Damascus takes to help them will be reciprocated. It will be a step by step scenario: these actions for those actions," he said.
These comments came as Moallem arrived in Baghdad Sunday to being a landmark visit to the country.
Moallem is the highest ranking Syrian official to visit Iraq since the US-ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. He called Sunday for a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces to help end Iraq's sectarian bloodbath.
Syria and Iraq share a long and porous desert border and both Baghdad and Washington have accused Damascus of not doing enough to stop the flow of foreign Arab fighters. A restoration of contacts between Damascus and Baghdad is seen as a means of convincing Damascus to exert tighter control over its border.
AP contributed to this report.