Syrian Leak / Talking Through the Press

The media published yesterday two more messages from Syria - President Bashar Assad's preferred way of conducting negotiations with Israel.

One, reported on the semi-official Web site Champress, said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had told Assad that Israel was willing to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in return for full peace.

The second, an opinion piece published in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, was written by General Dr. Fawzi Shoaibi, who heads an institute of strategic studies and is considered close to Assad. The piece, entitled, "The time has come to break through the Syrian-Israeli channel," called for progress in negotiations.

In a speech in July 2007, Assad said there were three conditions to conducting negotiations: an official, public statement by Israel that it wants peace with Syria; guarantees that the entire Golan Heights will be returned to Syria; and the Syrians knowing that these talks are not over the return of territory but over arrangements for peace and security.

Shoaibi explains that Olmert's recent statements "are a clear response in principle to the first Syrian condition," with regard to an Israeli public declaration. He proposes adding to this Olmert's declaration that Syria is not a nuclear risk for Israel, nullifying previous statements and even constituting an apology for the alleged attack in September 2007. As for returning the Golan, Shoaibi says, it appears that "Israel has transferred to a third party (in which Assad has faith) pledges and guarantees that Syria asked for. Thus all negotiations will take into consideration what has already been achieved in the past." Syria underscored this clause when yesterday it leaked the report of Erdogan's successful intervention regarding Israeli willingness to withdraw from the Golan.

The Turks have declined to confirm or deny the Syrian report. However, sources in Ankara told Haaretz that Turkey has been holding talks to advance the Israel-Syria peace process for two years, and that the efforts have reached "a level of ripeness unmatched in the past." Whether Israel had delivered a statement in writing, as Assad demands, or a "non-paper," the Turkish sources did not want to say.

The "ripeness," if it exists, is mutual. Syria sees a window of opportunity with the changing of U.S. presidents. It also believes that negotiations with Israel will return the Golan to it, will significantly take pressure off it with regard to Lebanon, and will also polish up its tarnished status in the Middle East.

The timing apparently has to do with Ehud Barak's efforts to promote the Syrian track. The leaks could also attest that Syria and Iran are not necessarily entwined when it comes to policy.

Shoaibi reminds readers of the plan he proposed in 2007: indirect talks, with each side sending its representative to the mediating country (Turkey) to formulate the rules for direct talks. In 2007 Assad conditioned the talks on the presence of a "fair partner," meaning the U.S., although he said such a partner "did not exist at this time." Now, Shoaibi writes, the U.S. must move to "the language of realpolitik," the assumption being that if a breakthrough does occur, Washington will not be far behind.