Damascus Maneuvers / Damascus to Send Deputy FM to Summit, but Sets Conditions

Syrian Information Minister Muhsen Bilal used no fewer than 10 titles in describing deputy foreign minister Faysal Mekdad, who is slated represent Syria at the Annapolis international peace summit in place of the minister, Walid Moallem.

Indeed, Mekdad is an accomplished academic who served for a full decade as his country's ambassador to the United Nations. He has a Ph.D. in English literature and he is Syria's undersecretary for foreign affairs, but that doesn't change the fact that he in not the foreign minister.

To cover all bases, Bilal added that the foreign minister "has prior engagements this week." That said, should Damascus receive another letter from Washington sometime tonight to complement the one it received yesterday, and if that letter elevates the status of the Golan Heights in the upcoming talks, then Moallem might take the trouble and travel to Washington after all.

Sending Mekdad is the compromise the Syrians are willing to make in the face of pressure to attend the summit. As usual, Syria has let others make its decision for it. It did not initiate its participation, it merely accepted. And as it apparently will not meet its full goal of having the Golan Heights discussed at the meeting as a separate issue, it has taken a stand on the subject of the status of the envoy it sends to Maryland. It struck a pose of obliging under protest. But that should not serve to detract from the commitment Syria has undertaken by participating.

Mekdad, in an interview with Al Jazeera, said that the conference should be seen as an opportunity, but he also stipulated condition for realizing that opportunity. Syria, he said, would not agree to return to the outset of its negotiations with Israel. In other words, talks would have to pick up where they left off: According to Mekdad, the two parties had already reached agreement on 85 percent of the matters in dispute.

According to Mekdad, the understandings are as follows:

1. The border, under a future agreement, would be exactly as it had been before the Six-Day War, when Israel captured the Heights.

2. Syria would not deport leaders of the Palestinian resistance organizations who are in exile there. The Syrian position is that these Palestinian militants are to return from Syria to their homes in the territories.

3. Talks with Israel are not to be linked to the Iranian issue or to Syria's relations with Iran, which is to say that Syria will not severe its ties with Iran just in order to engage in negotiations with Israel.

By stipulating these prerequisites for peace-talks, Syria was defining the ground rules for participation in any form of negotiation. It is shielding itself from been seen as attending for the sole purpose of appeasing President George W. Bush.

By agreeing to attend the conference, Syria is forcing the U.S. to reexamine its relationship with Damascus. That is, assuming that Bush will in the future want to enlist the support of Arab states for other issues, beyond the peace process with Israel.