Israel and Syria in Touch via Third Country, Assad Says

Intermediary believed to be Turkey; Syrian president says willing to send envoys to mediator country.

Israel and Syria are holding contacts through a third party, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Tuesday. Assad did not disclose the identity of the interlocutor, but it is believed to be Turkey.

Assad said a third country has recently been trying to bring Israel and Syria closer. In a speech to parliament after taking the oath of office for his second term, Assad said he would be willing to send envoys to a third country to accelerate contacts between the parties.

"That is the maximum that we are willing to do," he said.In the past, Turkey has delivered messages between Israel and Syria, and it was Turkey that initiated the informal talks between former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel and the Syrian-American negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman.

Assad said the third-party contacts have been continuing for some time, but added that they became serious only recently. He emphasized that he sees no possibility for direct meetings between Syrian and Israeli representatives at this stage.

He suggested that mediators could shuttle between delegations from each country staying at different hotels in the same city.

The Syrian leader made it clear that once contacts through indirect channels were exhausted, open, non-secret negotiations should be initiated. He called for "direct, open negotiations in the presence of an honest broker."

This can be read as a reiteration of Syria's long-standing call for U.S.-mediated talks.

Assad demanded guarantees from senior Israeli officials that Israel will return the entire Golan Heights to Syria before direct, bilateral negotiations, and in this context mentioned the "deposit" by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Syria claims that Rabin promised the U.S. that Israel would withdraw to the June 1967 borders and asked what the Syrians would give in return. Assad also stressed, however, that he did not trust Israel and that all previous attempts to negotiate with Israel damaged the trust that did not exist in the first place.

On Tuesday it was reported that Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, had sent an urgent letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accusing Israel of false reports on arms smuggling from Syria to Lebanon.

The letter said that Israel photographs trucks carrying fresh produce and other goods and presents them as evidence of weapons trafficking. A number of recent UN reports have concluded that arms are being brought into Lebanon through that country's porous border with Syria.

Regarding Turkey, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff, attorney Yoram Turbowicz, went to Ankara about a month ago. His visit nearly coincided with the visit to Israel of a top Turkish official.

The Prime Minister's Bureau on Tuesday issued a statement saying that while any talk of peace is positive, the Syrian president issued three "no's" that are unacceptable to Israel: The demand for indirect and open talks, and the precondition of Israel's agreeing to cede the Golan Heights. Olmert demands confidential talks with no preconditions, the statement said.