Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S. envoy George Mitchell
Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S. envoy George Mitchell in Damascus on September 16, 2010. Photo by AP
Text size

The United States assured Syria on Thursday that its focus on a securing a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel would not deflect Washington from pushing for an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

"Our effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in no way contradicts or conflicts with our goal of comprehensive peace, including peace between Israel and Syria," U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell told reporters after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

"Indeed, we believe very strongly that a foundation of good-faith negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis can and should support the entire structure of comprehensive peace," he added. "Absent that foundation – which is being set in place just now as we speak – anything that we would try to build with others in the region would not stand."

"Our effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in no way contradicts or conflicts with our goal of comprehensive peace including peace between Israel and Syria," Mitchell said in his statement.

"As President [Barack] Obama said, comprehensive peace in this region includes a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Lebanon and the full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors," he said.

"We have every expectation that comprehensive peace will travel the full distance from hope to reality," he added. "We are well aware of the challenges and difficulties. Still, as difficult as the task may be, the alternative for all concerned is far worse. So all of us have no choice; we have the obligation to work for a better and more peaceful future for all of the people of this region."

Mitchell confirmed at a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday that the United States was indeed making intense efforts to restart those negotiations, and said Obama has been briefed on the results of these efforts.

He also said his deputy, Fred Hof, had recently been to Damascus and met with senior government officials about resuming the Israeli-Syria talks. On Hof's return to Washington, he reported on the outcome of his meetings to Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama.

Channel 10 television reported on Tuesday that Hof visited Israel this week and told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Assad wanted to resume talks with Israel without preconditions, but was seeking American assurances that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that Netanyahu sent a message to Assad via the U.S. in which he said he believed Israel and Syria could reach an agreement within a year.

Turkey to do 'everything possible' for peace

Meanwhile, Ankara will do everything in its power to achieve peace between Israel and Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday.

Speaking at a conference in Istanbul, he also claimed that Turkey and the United States see eye to eye on the Iranian nuclear question. "Turkey will do everything possible for peace between Israel and Syria," Davutoglu vowed.

Two days previously, Assad had termed Turkey an essential partner in the diplomatic process between his country and Israel. In earlier statements, the Syrian leader had similarly said Damascus would not give up Turkish involvement in the process with Israel.

The Turkish foreign minister had been scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May to discuss continuing the indirect talks between Israel and Syria. But the Israel Navy's interception of a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, scuttled Davutoglu's plans.

Davutoglu's latest statements follow a meeting this week between Assad and France's Middle East envoy, Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former French ambassador to Damascus. Cousseran is under orders from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convince Syria to accept France as the lead mediator in Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Turkey considers its role as mediator between Syria and Israel as a way of advancing its goal of becoming a key player in the Middle East peace process, and is thus concerned over the possibility of losing its standing to France. Turkish sources said Ankara will try to reestablish contacts between Israeli and Syrian officials in the coming months.

"A diplomatic process in which Turkey participates could significantly dissipate the impact of the flotilla affair on relations between the two countries," a source in Turkey's Foreign Ministry told Haaretz. "We do not see any contradiction between the talks that are being conducted between Israel and the Palestinians and the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli channel."

Turkish mediation could also help Ankara reach agreement with the U.S. on an arms package it wants to procure, as well as improving its image after it refused to support further UN sanctions against Iran. But Turkey is still refusing to comply with an American request to deploy anti-ballistic missiles on its soil as part of a regional defense system against an Iranian missile strike.

Ankara has also rejected Israel's request that the captain of the Mavi Marmara - the flotilla ship on which all the deaths occurred - provide testimony to the Turkel Committee, which is investigating the May raid. Turkey maintains that Captain Mahmut Tural's testimony is already in the report that a Turkish committee investigating the incident prepared for a UN probe of the affair.