Syria Takes a Seat at the Table

Damascus says it wants to talk

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ANNAPOLIS, MD.—While the spotlight was on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, there are signs that the one-day Annapolis peace conference may spur some unexpected action on the dormant Syria-Israel front.

Russian diplomats are now aiming to host another Mideast conference early next year in Moscow, focused on the so-far intractable issue of the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Talks in 2000 foundered over the placement of a new border, with Israel refusing to permit Syria to regain access to the Sea of Galilee—an inland lake that is critical to Israel's water supply.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Bush administration officials say the time isn't right. The administration was initially divided over whether even to invite Syrian officials to Annapolis, with skeptics favoring continued efforts to isolate Damascus for its interference in Lebanon, including alleged complicity in political assassinations, and for its aid to Islamic militants. Last week, however, State Department officials allowed a glimmer of optimism that Annapolis could lead to wider peace talks. Damascus is keen on that. "Syria has made a strategic decision," says Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha. "We want to engage in a peace process."

The unexpected development from Annapolis taps into an old question in Mideast peacemaking: Is it more productive to focus on the Palestinian or the Syrian track, or to attempt both? There have been unofficial feelers between Syria and Israel recently. And some Israeli military officials favor pursuing the Syrian track, in part to decouple Syria from ally Iran.

However, Olmert's right-wing coalition partners oppose giving back the Golan, and Syrian leader Bashar Assad has a high bar to cross to convince the Israelis that peace is on his mind.