Israel sees Syria break out of isolation

But Syrian president tells Hizbullah's 'Al Manar' TV that his country will continue to back "resistance."

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli diplomatic officials viewed the four-way summit in Damascus among the leaders of Syria, France, Turkey and Qatar on Thursday with some frustration, saying Syrian President Bashar Assad had effectively broken out of his international isolation without having given anything in return. Assad hosted a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani following his one-on-one meeting with Sarkozy on Wednesday. "He no longer needs to negotiate with us," one senior Israeli diplomatic official said Thursday, following a statement Assad made Thursday morning that indirect negotiations with Israel had been postponed because of the resignation of Yoram Turbowicz, the head of the Israeli negotiating team, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff. "The resignation of the chief Israeli negotiator led to the postponement of this round, which would have defined the course of these negotiations," Assad said. "He got out of his isolation, and now can put us on hold," the senior Israeli diplomatic official said. "He is now trying to blame us for the postponement." Turbowicz quit his post in the beginning of August, just after Olmert announced his intention to resign following the September 17 Kadima primary. Olmert at the time asked Turbowicz to stay on and deal with the diplomatic issues he had been heavily involved in, primarily as a liaison with Washington and heading the talks with Syria. The legal aspects of Turbowicz working as a volunteer, or setting up a new framework for him in the Prime Minister's Office, are being dealt with by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. A source in the Prime Minister's Office said that the terms of Turbowicz's employment would be worked out in a matter of days. Erdogan, meanwhile, contradicted Assad later in the day, saying that the process was continuing "in a positive manner," and that a fifth round of talks would be held in Turkey on September 18-19. Turkey is brokering the indirect talks. Assad also said Thursday that his country had given Turkish mediators an outline of general proposals for peace with Israel and was waiting for Jerusalem's response before holding any face-to-face negotiations. Assad said the document was intended to serve as the basis for direct talks and that he was waiting for a similar document laying out Israel's starting position. Israeli officials said they were unaware of any such document, while Turkish sources confirmed that Assad gave Erdogan a document on Thursday to pass on to the Israeli side. The Turkish source, who said he didn't know what six points were in the paper, said it was likely a crystallization of ideas that had been discussed in the previous four rounds of talks. Assad, meanwhile, cautioned that the future of negotiations rested on who would become prime minister in Israel after Olmert stepped down, and whether the new leader was committed to pursuing peace with Syria. Any direct talks would also have to wait until a new American administration was in place, Assad said, acknowledging the importance of strong US backing for such an effort. "We are now discussing a document of principles, which talks about general principles of the peace process which will be the basis for direct negotiations," Assad said. He said Syria had outlined six points on the issue of the "withdrawal line," a reference to the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a major sticking point over which direct negotiations collapsed in 2000. Assad said the Syrian points had been given to the Turkish negotiators "as a deposit." When Israel gave its own proposals to the Turkish side, then the two sides could move to direct negotiations, "after a new American administration convinced of the peace process is in place," he said. "We want the support of all states, basically France, Qatar and Turkey, in order to be assured that the next [Israeli] prime minister will follow the same direction Olmert had followed through his readiness for complete withdrawal from the occupied territories in order for peace to be achieved." Sarkozy offered France's help to sponsor such negotiations when the time came. His visit to Damascus was the first by a Western leader since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Thursday's summit boosted Assad's government and consolidated the international warming toward his country led by Sarkozy. In addition to their individual clout, France is the current head of the European Union and Qatar is the current head of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Israeli officials said Assad wanted the summit to end Syria's isolation; Sarkozy wanted it to increase France's presence and influence in Middle East diplomacy; Erdogan wanted it to show his constituents at home that despite the prolonged constitutional crisis in his country, he was still a major player on the world scene and the emir of Qatar was interested in the summit to "annoy the Saudis," who are Qatar's main rival in the Gulf. "The current US administration does not act for peace and doesn't believe in peace," Assad said. "At this point Turkey is fulfilling the role of mediator because the talks are indirect. "As soon as we move on to direct talks, a 'chaperone' will be added to the negotiations equation and his job will require more than just shuttling messages or ideas from side to side. He must provide guarantees for the implementation of the mechanism in order to arrive at a peace process, and after signing a peace agreement must provide guarantees for the implementation of the deal. Therefore, I say that we are waiting for the next American administration in order to see what its stances are." "The US," he said, "is a key element of the peace process." Hours after reiterating his commitment to pursuing a peaceful solution to his country's conflict with Israel, Assad said that he had no intention of severing strategic ties with Hizbullah. In an interview with the Islamist group's Al-Manar television station on Thursday, Assad stressed that "Syria has no interest in relinquishing its ties with Hizbullah. The Syrian stance towards Hizbullah remains unchanged." "Our attitude toward the resistance is clear wherever it may be; against the occupation in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine," the Syrian president said. Damascus had opted to embark on negotiations track with Israel and to bolster its ties with the West "to serve our own interests and not in order to give away any gifts," he said. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.