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Saturday, September 4, 1999 Published at 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK

World: Middle East

Albright finds Syrians cool towards Israel

Farooq al-Shaara told Madeleine Albright he was disappointed

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has held talks in the Syrian capital Damascus with President Hafez al-Assad on how to revive Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Middle East
She was seen off at Damascus airport by foreign minister Farouq al-Shara who said he was disappointed at the proposals by Israel to restart negotiations that broke off in early 1996.

Syria told Mrs Albright that it would hold peace talks with Israel if it could be assured of recovering the strategic Golan Heights.

Mr al-Shara said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in the mould of his late predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, who Syria says had made a commitment to give back the lost land.

[ image: Albright: Light from the Israeli-Palestinian deal should illuminate the whole region]
Albright: Light from the Israeli-Palestinian deal should illuminate the whole region
"We believe Prime Minister Barak belongs to the school of Rabin and he considers Rabin his mentor and he is going to follow his steps," Mr al-Shara said

Mrs Albright said negotiations with Syria should be based on the principle of "land-for-peace."

But she declined to say whether she agreed with Mr al-Shara, who told reporters at a joint news conference: "We would like to resume where we left off".

Referring to Friday's Israeli-Palestinian deal, Mrs Albright said "the light that came from yesterday's agreement should illuminate the whole region."

She described her meeting with President Assad as "useful and constructive."

Lebanon suprise

Mrs Albright then flew to Lebanon for unscheduled talks with Lebanese officials on re-starting frozen peace moves with Israel.

She was the first secretary of state to land at Beirut airport since George Shultz in 1983 - an indication of improving US confidence in security in Lebanon.

Disagreement on how to start

The BBC's David Sells special report for Newsnight on Syria's role in the peace process
Syria's sporadic negotiations with Israel, which opened in 1991, halted in early 1996 and remained at a standstill during the three-year rule of former right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Mr Barak and President Assad have indicated they are 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.

Mr Barak may want to follow in Mr Rabin's footsteps, but BBC regional analysist Roger Hardy says that in his dealings with President Assad he cannot afford to give up his main bargaining chip in advance.


[ image: Hafez al-Assad: The US wants to secure a deal while he still holds the presidency]
Hafez al-Assad: The US wants to secure a deal while he still holds the presidency
There is a new sense of urgency about the quest for a breakthrough. The 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".

The Syrian leader's health is causing concern. 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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