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Saturday, September 4, 1999 Published at 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK

World: Middle East

Now Albright tackles Syria

Israel's occupation of the Golan heights is a major point of contention

By regional analyst Roger Hardy

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus, for what is in many ways the most important part of her current mission to the Middle East

Middle East
Syria, where Mrs Albright will hold talks with President Hafiz al-Assad, is the main focus of Washington's current push for peace in the region.

US policy-makers are encouraged by the signals that have been coming from Jerusalem and Damascus since the election of Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister in May.

[ image: Mr Barak and Mrs Albright: Her Middle East trip could create the opportunity for a breakthrough]
Mr Barak and Mrs Albright: Her Middle East trip could create the opportunity for a breakthrough
They believe this has opened up a window of opportunity for a deal involving - in essence - an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for security guarantees from Syria.

For this reason Mrs Albright, is prepared to intervene actively on the Syrian front - something she has been reluctant to do on the Israeli-Palestinian aspect of the peace process.

The last Syrian-Israeli peace talks were broken off in 1996. Since then the Syrian track has lain dormant, despite occasional reports of secret back-channel contacts between the two sides.

Disagreement over agreement

[ image: Hafiz al-Assad: The US wants to secure a deal while he still holds the presidency]
Hafiz al-Assad: The US wants to secure a deal while he still holds the presidency
Mr Barak and President Assad now seem ready to authorise a return to the negotiating table - but they disagree on what basis the talks should resume.

The Syrians insist they had reached agreement with the former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, before his assassination in 1995.

They say Mr Rabin had agreed in principle to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. They therefore want Mr Barak to say publicly that fresh talks would pick up where the earlier ones left off.

This is not likely to happen. The Israelis deny that any clear-cut agreement was ever reached with the Syrians.

Mr Barak is certainly ready to follow in Mr Rabin's footsteps - he too wants to be seen as a tough soldier-turned-statesman. But in his dealings with the wily President Assad he can't afford to give up his main bargaining chip in advance.


Madeleine Albright's challenge is to bridge this crucial gap.

There is a new sense of urgency about the quest for a breakthrough. Clinton administration officials believe that the best way to bolster a fragile peace process is by bringing in Syria.

This would, in turn, help to secure an agreement with Syria's neighbour Lebanon - and thus, as they like to put it, "complete the circle of peace".

An additional reason is uncertainty about the Syrian leader's health. Both the Americans and the Israelis seem to feel that President Assad, 68, is better placed to strike a deal than any possible successor.

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