March 11, 2009
In a swift change of stance Syria says it is ready to hold direct peace talks with Israel should Washington mediate the negotiations.
Stressing determination to get back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, President Bashar al-Assad said Wednesday that Damascus will make a shift in its strategy in holding peace talks with Israel only if the US acts as a mediator.
"We need the United States to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations (with Israel)," Assad told Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
He also said that "possible progress of such talks would depend on the next Israeli administration."
This is while the Syrian president had said on Monday that peace with Israel was 'impossible' as long as the 'issue of one-and-a-half million Palestinians' who are forced to live outside of their own country remains unresolved.
Formerly, Turkish mediators were arbitrating indirect Syria-Israel talks aimed at resuming peace negotiations. Syria formally suspended the Turkish-mediated indirect talks last year following Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
According to Ha'aretz, Assad's remarks follow Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign promise that a government led by him would "not provoke war and would be interested in seriously and genuinely exploring a peace process," with Syria.
Israel and Syria have officially been at war since 1967 when Tel Aviv occupied Syria's strategic Golan Heights during the Six-Day War. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border, but Israeli officials say the plateau is too strategically important to be returned. The Golan Heights gives Israel access to the Sea of Galilee ~~ Israel's main source of fresh water.
Syria's request for US mediation in direct talks with Israel also comes after US President Barack Obama's new administration launched an attempt to mend ties with Syria by sending envoys and US senators to the country for meetings.
US-Syrian relations deteriorated under the Bush administration with Washington accusing Damascus of supporting terrorists and Damascus criticizing US for attacking Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is not us who have changed. It is the Americans who have changed", Assad said adding that "the administration of Bush did not do that, and it only cared about the benefit of his own country."
The Bush administration opposed Israeli-Syrian negotiations, saying such a negotiation would reward Syria at a time when the US is seeking to isolate the country.
The Syrian president also said that in order to achieve regional peace , major parties ~ including Hamas and Hezbollah must be included in the talks.
Damascus put the negations on hold after Tel Aviv launched Operation Cast Lead ~ which killed at least 1,300 people and wounded thousands of others.