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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK

World: Middle East

Albright tackles Syria

Israel's occupation of the Golan heights is the main point of contention

By regional analyst Roger Hardy

The visit to the Syrian capital Damascus on 4 September by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was a clear signal of where Washington's priorities lie.

Middle East
Senior US policy-makers see Syria as the key to a successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process.

They are ready for sustained American intervention to broker a deal between Israel and Syria.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, in contrast, Washington's preference is that the parties should be left to make progress largely unaided.

Mrs Albright's brief visit produced no breakthrough. But it seems to have left her guardedly optimistic about the prospects for reviving face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians.

Window of opportunity

The Clinton administration is encouraged by the signals that have come from Jerusalem and Damascus since the election of Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister in May.

[ image: Mr Barak and Mrs Albright: No breakthroughs, but renewed optimism]
Mr Barak and Mrs Albright: No breakthroughs, but renewed optimism
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.

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.

Mr Barak and Syria's President Assad now seem ready to authorise a return to the negotiating table - but they do not agree on what basis the talks should resume.

Agreement denied

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

[ 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
They say Mr Rabin agreed in principle to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

They therefore want Mr Barak to say publicly that fresh talks will 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 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 cannot afford to give up his main bargaining chip in advance.

The challenge for American mediators is to bridge this crucial gap.

'Circle of peace'

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 President Assad's health.

Both the Americans and the Israelis seem to feel that the 68-year-old Syrian leader is better placed to strike a deal than any possible successor.

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