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(photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad all but ruled out his country's participation in next month's planned US-sponsored meeting on the Middle East in Annapolis, suggesting in an interview published Thursday that the meeting has no chance for success.
His comments come amid deep skepticism over the conference among Arab governments, which have expressed doubts the planned gathering will tackle the main issues of the conflict with Israel.
Top allies Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have not said whether they will attend.
Assad's comments did not surprise Jerusalem, where one senior diplomatic official said the meeting was aimed at solving the conflict through peace and dialogue, a position Damascus - through its support for Hamas and Hizbullah - does not champion.
At the same time, the official said, "We would be happy to see anyone join to show support for the Israeli-Palestinian track, and that includes the Syrians. We would like them to come to show that they are supporting the pragmatic forces and are interested in arriving at resolution through dialogue."
The official said Syria's refusal to participate did not increase the chances that terrorist organizations would try to carry out an attack beforehand to scuttle the meeting, since that motivation exists with or without Syrian participation in the meeting.
In an interview with two Tunisian newspapers, Assad made his most concrete statement casting doubt on his country's participation.
"Syria has not received an invitation to the conference, and even if it did, it will not take part in a conference that lacks the chances of success," Assad said.
The Bush administration has said it will invite Syria to the conference. But Assad had said earlier that his country would not attend the meeting if it did not address Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967.
In Thursday's interview, Assad said the conference should have serious and clear goals and "should include all peace tracks, including the Golan issue." "The Syrian track is essential and the Golan issue is number one," he told the Ach-Chourouk and Le Quotidien newspapers.
The United States has kept quiet on the most basic details about the meeting, including precise dates, the guest list and the location - though it is expected to be in Annapolis, Maryland. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be on the spot to fill in the blanks during a preparatory trip to the Middle East that is schedule to begin on Sunday.
Senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei warned Thursday that if the upcoming meeting did not yield results, Palestinians were likely to respond with intensified violence, according to Army Radio.
"If the talks fail, we can expect a third and much more severe intifada," Qurei was quoted as saying. He currently heads the Palestinian negotiating team.
Qurei warned that there would likely be heavy bloodshed in the case of failed talks at the meeting. The so-called "second intifada" began shortly after the Camp David accords in 2000.
A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said both the Israelis and the Palestinians had agreed to the need to resolve the conflict.
"There is no need for the other side to threaten," the official said, adding that "the consequence of failure will be on both sides."
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa predicted the conference would be a failure and said the US was only hoping for a photo-op between Saudi and Israeli officials rather than real progress.
Moussa warned of a likely failure of the conference during an international economic forum Wednesday night in Cairo.
"All what they [the Americans] want, as some say, is that the [Saudi Foreign Minister] Saud al-Faisal shake hands with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, that the two take pictures. This is a joke, it's not serious," Moussa said. "Prince Saud al-Faisal will not do that... it has been decided."
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also expressed doubts in a written statement Thursday, calling invitations to the conference "worthless and ineffective" because Israel has not changed its behavior toward the Palestinians.
In the interview, Assad acknowledged that relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt were "not as they should be," but said his country was open to any initiatives to improve ties.
Damascus's relations with longtime US allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have been cool, partly over what they see as Syria's role in promoting the interests of its ally Iran in the Arab world.
He warned against any US military action against Iran, saying it would be "foolish and detrimental to the region and to the world."
He did not elaborate.
Assad also confirmed that Turkey was trying to mediate between his country and Israel.
"We have told them [the Turks] that our stance toward peace does not change... All we want is a clear declaration by Israeli officials of their desire for peace and returning [occupied] land to Syria," he said.
"We also want guarantees that the full territory would return," he added.
Regarding the IAF bombing raid in Syria last month, Assad said in the interview that Israel's silence reflected "the failure of Israeli or US intelligence." "They are trying to cover up their failure by shrouding it with mystery," he said.