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Syrian Call for Peace Talks with Israel Faces Obstacles - 2004-02-28

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently called for a resumption of peace talks with Israel. The U.S. administration says Syria should signal its commitment to peace by halting support for anti-Israeli militants both in Syria and in neighboring Lebanon. Correspondent Laurie Kassman reports from Damascus on the obstacles to negotiations.

Heavy snow and cold weather have brought a temporary halt to traffic on the so-called shouting hill, nestled on the edge of Syria's Golan Heights.

Sixty-seven year-old Othman Yaasouf says he will not bother trekking up the few kilometers from his village to the empty cement platform that looks across a narrow valley to another village on the other side where his sister and her family live.

The 100-meter wide valley is a no-man's land, fenced off by barbed wire and patrolled by United Nations observers. It separates Syria from the rest of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Syria wants all the 1,300 square kilometers of Israeli-occupied Golan back in exchange for a promise of peace. Israeli leaders want security guarantees to prevent attacks from the strategic heights.

For more than 36 years, families and friends mostly communicate with each other by shouting through bull horns across the valley dividing them.

Mr. Yaasouf says he has not seen his sister for 10 years, the last time she was allowed to cross into Syria for a visit. But, he says telephone communications were re-established several years ago and that makes it easier to keep in touch.

Still, he says he goes to the shouting hill in good weather for a distant glimpse of his family on the other side.

The nearby town of Kuneitra remains abandoned. Syrians have refused to rebuild it. The once bustling regional trade center of 52,000 people is empty except for a few shepherds who pass through it with their sheep.

Public Relations Director Mohammad Akhneifes Ali explains how important Kuneitra could be once peace is achieved. "Kuneitra City was the crossroads city among Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan," he said. "The Distance from Kuneitra to southern Lebanon is 25 kilometers. From Kuneitra to the Palestinian border, 30 kilometers. From Kuneitra to Jordan in the south is 60 kilometers. And, from Kuneitra to Damascus it is 67 kilometers."

Peace talks between Syria and Israel broke off four years ago, but Syrian officials say the draft of a deal was nearly completed at the time.

Now Syrian President Bashar al Assad says he is ready resume talks where they broke off.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani. "Our position is that we need to resume talks from where we stopped. It is not a concession. It is not done that any country that reaches the point of agreement then when the government changes you go back to point zero," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has conditioned resumption of talks on Syria ending its support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

Ms. Kanafani says Syria refuses to label the Lebanese Hezbollah as terrorists. "It's an organization of resistance. They are the ones who led Lebanon to free its territories. Are they terrorists or freedom fighters?" he said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell recently repeated U.S. demands that Damascus end its support for anti-Israeli militants as a gesture of its commitment to better ties with Israel and the United States.

"Syria will reflect on its position and start to take action to eject from Damascus the leaders of terrorist groups that make it hard for us to find a way forward between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he said.

The U.S. Congress has threatened sanctions against Syria unless it takes action on this and other issues.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently talked with Turkey's leader about mediating with Washington but Ms. Kanafani says Syria has seen little movement on this front so far.

Some analysts question President Assad's timing when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are at an impasse.

Some observers here in Syria suggest President Assad made the proposal now partly to placate Washington, which has hardened its approach to Syria as part of its war on terrorism. The U.S. Congress has threatened to impose sanctions on Syria unless it halts support for terrorists and any efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction-a charge Syria denies.

Political analyst Aziz Shukri says despite the obstacles, it was time for President Bashar al Assad to make the gesture. "Why not now? Many people say he has done that to oblige the American requests. Okay, let it be. I think he has done the right thing by saying -like his father, seeking peace with the enemy," he said.

For now, officials in Syria do not expect any progress on the Middle East peace process while the United States focuses on the presidential elections in November.