(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Syria's ambassador to the UK told an audience on Saturday that Israeli residents of the Golan Heights might prefer to remain under Syrian sovereignty if the area were returned to Syria.
Dr. Sami Khiyami spoke at a conference entitled, "The Golan: Ending Occupation, Establishing Peace," held at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and hosted by the Syrian Media Center in London.
In his address, Khiyami stressed how important it was to Syria to recover "its most precious occupied territory."
Quoting former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the ambassador described a situation in which guns were competing with olive branches. He appealed to Israel not to forfeit the opportunity provided by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and reaffirmed at the Riyadh summit this year.
Responding to a question on the fate of Israelis in the Golan if it were returned, Khiyami stated that they might prefer to remain under Syrian sovereignty. He said that Syria was a safe haven for all its neighbors, "a secular country that respects all faiths and whose citizens have always enjoyed equal rights."
Israelis, he said, might prefer to remain rather than return - as they would be required to do in accordance with international law - to Israel, which he called "an apartheid state with false pretences to democracy."
Dr. Fawaz Akhras, co-chairman of the British Syrian Society, spoke of the destruction of Syrian villages and farmlands by Israel and the unsuccessful pressure the "occupation" exerted on Syrian citizens in an attempt to "encourage them to disavow their homeland."
Ghayth Armanazi, director of the Syrian Media Center, used Israeli historians former leaders' statements to show how Israel "deliberately provoked tension and clashes along the Syrian front prior to June 1967, paving the way for the attack on, and occupation of, the Golan."
In another session, military analyst Col. Tim Collins talked about the impact on Syria's army of the "successful challenge to Israel's historic military superiority wrought by the Lebanese resistance fighters last summer." Collins advised Israel to take this into account and choose the path of peace.
Later, Khiyami discussed the possibilities of negotiations with Israel and Dr. Marwa Daoudy analyzed past failures to negotiate a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, which the Syrian academic said were "largely due to Israeli leaders' unwillingness to commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan."
The conference concluded in a roundtable discussion that agreed Syria should be doing more to present its position to the international media, in particular the strong case it has regarding the Golan Heights.