Assad confirms Olmert's Golan offer

Syrian president: Israel, Damascus have been negotiating via Turkey since end of Lebanon War.

Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Prime Minister's Office remained completely mum Thursday on whether Israel had told Syria via Turkey that it is willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed Turkish mediation on the issue. Assad's comments in Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper provided the first details of Turkish mediation, which Damascus says has yielded an Israeli offer for a withdrawal in return for a peace treaty with Syria. He said Turkey began its mediation in April 2007 and that there would be no secret negotiations with Israel. The preliminary stages of talks, Assad said, would be held with Turkey as a go-between. "Maybe with the coming administration in the United States we can talk about direct negotiations," he told Al-Watan, which only published excerpts of the interview. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev reiterated what he said a day earlier when reports of the alleged offer first broke, that Olmert had made clear in interviews published last Friday that Israel knew what Syria's expectations were, and that the Syrians knew what Israel wanted. As part of any peace agreement, Israel wants the Syrians to stop supporting Hamas and Hizbullah, and to distance itself from Teheran. Olmert continued his Pessah vacation on the Golan on Thursday, and has said nothing publicly on the matter since the Pessah eve interviews. The United States was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations, Assad said. Officials in the Syrian presidency confirmed that Assad gave the interview, and did not dispute its contents. Syria and Israel last held peace negotiations in 2000. Those talks collapsed over Assad's demand that Israel withdraw to the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret. Assad told Al-Watan he would discuss details of Ankara's mediation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visited Damascus on Saturday. A week ago, he said, Syria received the news that Olmert had "assured the Turkish prime minister of his readiness to give up the Golan. "What we need now is finding common ground through the Turkish mediator," Assad said. Olmert has never committed himself publicly on a return of the Golan, saying only he is willing to resume peace talks with Syria if it drops its support for Hizbullah and Hamas. Assad also criticized the policies of the Bush administration, saying "it does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything." Syria has had poor relations with the Bush administration as well as with Washington's regional allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, particularly over what they see as the obstructive role played by Damascus to efforts aimed at resolving Lebanon's political crisis.