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A peace agreement with Syria could pull Damascus out of Iran's orbit, a senior Western diplomat based in Israel said Thursday. The secular Sunni nation, ruled by minority Alawites, has nothing in common with Iran, a Shi'ite theocracy, he added.
The diplomat said this assessment has been relayed to Israeli officials. He said despite the flurry of media reports about a greater openness among some in the government for engaging the Syrians, he had not seen any change in the formal Israeli position that any such talks could not take place until Damascus ended its support for Hizbullah and Hamas.
"We can break Syria away from Iran," the official said, adding that what was needed in Israel was the "political will and courage" to negotiate with Damascus over the return of the Golan Heights.
The official said that given the political weakness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he doubted the prime minister would be "strong" enough to sign an agreement with the Syrians that would entail the return of the Golan.
The official said Syria understood that a deal with Israel would necessitate breaking away from Iran and ending its support for Hizbullah and Hamas.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that in the past few months Turkey approached the Syrians to "test the waters" about negotiating with Israel and that the Turks concluded Syria was serious about talks.
The Turks, however, did not get a similar sense of interest from Israel.
The diplomat's comments dovetailed with remarks made by a senior Israeli government analyst on Thursday. The analyst said Syrian President Bashar Assad's primary concern was the survival of his regime and that if he believed his survival would be better served by aligning himself with the West, he would break from Iran.
The analyst said, however, that it was not clear how far Syria was willing to go in ending support for Hamas and Hizbullah to enter into negotiations with Israel.
"Everyone knows that the price we will have to pay is the Golan," the government official said. "No one knows how far Assad is willing to go."
In recent months, the analyst said, Syria had made certain "incremental concessions" that were largely ignored in Israel, but were deemed highly significant by the Syrians.
For instance, Syria has repeatedly announced it would only start negotiations with Israel from the point where they ended in 2000, but recently announced a willingness to discuss with Israel where that exact ending point was.
Another "concession," the analyst said, was Assad's announcement that he was open to secret negotiations.
The analyst said Syria was in the midst of a major arms buildup that reflected Damascus's changing military doctrine. He said that doctrine is based on using long- and middle-range missiles to hit Israel's home front, and as a result they are acquiring masses of antitank and antiaircraft missiles to protect them.
The concern in Damascus, the analyst said, was that this new buildup could lead to a preemptive strike by Israel.
Meanwhile, a senior Syrian official told French news agencies on Thursday that Syria was ready to resume peace talks with Israel. But Syria doubted Israel's commitment to the peace process, the official said, and there was little hope in Damascus that the status quo would change.
The official's remarks came a day after Olmert told the security cabinet that Israel was not interested in a war with Syria and reportedly called for direct negotiations with Damascus.