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April 02, 2003

Will Syria trade peace in Iraq for no peace in Israel?

Will the US go for it?

Syria set for tough parleys with U.S
.DAMASCUS April 25. Hoping to narrow its differences and broaden the possible areas of cooperation, Syria is getting set for complex negotiations with the United States.

Syrian officials here talk about "red lines" — the maximum limit to which Damascus can go to accommodate U.S. concerns. With a new dispensation emerging in Iraq, Syria has already drawn its first "red line." Apprehending that a new U.S.-backed regime in Baghdad is likely to build a cooperative relationship with Israel, Syria appears to have made up its mind that it would carry out a sustained campaign to oppose such a move.

Syria has declared its intent to oppose a possible U.S.-sponsored thaw between Iraq and Israel during recent talks with Arab countries.

Foreign Ministers of Iraq's neighbouring countries, along with Egypt and Bahrain, had recently held their first meeting in Riyadh after the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, had been unseated.

Analysts point out that Syria is likely to convey to Washington that it would want a "comprehensive" settlement of the Israel-Palestinian issue first, before considering any political realignment in the region. Sources here point out that unlike Jordan and Egypt, Syria does not want to sign a "separate peace" deal with Israel that does not include a final settlement of the Palestinian issue. Egypt and Jordan have signed separate peace accords with Israel and have normalised their relationship with Tel Aviv.

Syrian officials, however, say a separate peace deal is a bad idea.

There are two key issues involving the Israel-Palestinian issues, which concern Syria. First, the Syrians want the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 to be returned.

Second, they are looking for a modus vivendi that would allow the return of around 300,000 Palestinian refugees that reside in Syria. Both these issues cannot be tackled unless a final settlement of the Palestinian question is reached, they say.

The officialdom in Syria is also opposed to ending Damascus' influence in Lebanon, situated along Israel's northern borders.

The perception here that if Syria's influence in Lebanon declines Israel will attempt to fill the diplomatic vacuum that such a move is likely to cause. In other words, Israel would make a fresh attempt to bring Lebanon into its political orbit. Syria, on its part, would however, have to address two of Washington and Tel Aviv's concerns — its alleged support to the Hezbollah guerillas, widely viewed as Damascus' fifth column that has been positioned along the Israel-Lebanon border and its backing of Palestinian extremist groups.

Two other issues, which might prove less intractable, are likely to be on the agenda of the forthcoming U.S.-Syria talks that are likely to commence with the upcoming visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

First, the U.S. is likely to seek assurances from Syria that it would not support a potential resistance movement battling a post-war dispensation in Iraq. Washington is worried that though it has won the war in Iraq, it might lose the peace unless stability is achieved in Baghdad.

Second, Syria hopes to convince the U.S. that Washington should desist from setting the pace for its internal "democratic" reforms.

Winds of change, sources say, are already visible in Syria, but the calibration of this change will be decided in Damascus and not Washington.