Assad rejects direct talks with Israel

Assad rejects direct tal

assad sarkozy here kitty kitty 248.88 AP (photo credit: AP [file[)
assad sarkozy here kitty kitty 248.88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file[)
Syrian President Bashar Assad on Friday rejected Israel's call for direct peace talks but said he was prepared to resume indirect negotiations mediated by Turkey. Assad was in Paris two days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the city and said he was ready to meet the Syrian president anywhere, at any moment, but without preconditions. But Assad said that face-to-face talks with Netanyahu would not be fruitful. "What would we talk about, the menu or the return of land?" Assad asked reporters in Paris after he met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "Me, I say we would talk about returning land, and for this subject there is a framework," mechanisms and specialized negotiators to handle this, he said. "It is neither me nor Mr. Netanyahu," Assad said. "If Mr. Netanyahu is serious, he can send his teams of experts, we will send our teams of experts to Turkey. They can then talk, if they are really interested in peace." Israel had no official response to Assad's words. The possibility of movement on the Syrian track comes as efforts to launch talks with the Palestinians have hit a dead end. Turkey mediated four rounds of indirect talks with Israel under prime minister Ehud Olmert. Those efforts were halted when the IDF began Operation Cast Lead at the end of December and were never resumed. But the Turkish-Israeli relationship has recently become strained, leading to speculation that France could mediate any new talks. In an interview recorded on Friday afternoon and broadcast on France 2 television on Friday evening, Assad said France could play an important role in getting talks started. France "should support the role of the Turkish mediator and persuade Israel to return to the negotiating table with the Turkish mediator," he said. French-Turkish relations however, have also deteriorated, because Sarkozy is a firm and vocal opponent of EU membership for Turkey. It is not clear whether Paris could have much influence with Ankara. Assad reiterated his complaint that Israel is not fully committed to talks mediated by Turkey. He said the mediator and Syria are ready, but "what is missing is an Israeli partner ready to move forward and ready to reach a result." Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director-general who has been involved in Syria talks, said he was encouraged by Assad's words. "This is the first week since the collapse of the [indirect] talks that we see some positive meaningful noises in the direction of resuming talks with Syria," said Liel. Assad's statement about a group of Israeli experts meeting a group of Syrian ones is significant, in that it is an attempt to pave the way for the start of indirect talks. "It is an invitation for an Israeli group to come to Turkey," said Liel. Tensions between Israel and Turkey would make it hard for the Turks to play the same role that they did under Olmert, he said, but, he added, Netanyahu had said Israel would meet the Syrians anywhere. Presumably that would include Turkey, Liel said. Assad prefers Turkey to France as a mediator because he is very close to its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Liel. Sarkozy and Assad also discussed Iran's nuclear program. Damascus is a friend of Teheran. In the television interview, Assad cast doubt on the existence of Iran's alleged aspirations to make a nuclear weapon and urged Europe to reject US allegations that Teheran wanted such arms. Asked about how he felt about President Barack Obama, one year after the US leader's election, Assad said he was waiting to hear a concrete action plan from Obama to transform his ideas into reality. "I think we have to give Obama more time. But I can say that the people of the Middle East are progressively starting to lose hope. I hope they are wrong," Assad said.