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Syria: Return of Golan Heights Central to Middle East Peace


Syria's president has repeatedly called for a renewal of peace talks between his country and neighboring Israel, and some in Israel say now might be a good time to deal. Central to any negotiations will be the strategic Golan Heights, an area Israel occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed -- and an area Syria wants back. In this report from the Syrian town of Quneitra in the Golan, VOA's Sonja Pace takes a look at what is at stake.

This may once have been a bustling town of 37,000 people, but that was decades ago. Now, it is a ghost town.

All that is left of Quneitra are flattened homes, bullet-riddled buildings, a burnt-out church, a mosque, a destroyed hospital, empty fields, barbed wire and land mines.

The few people here tend to be plain-clothes security police, the few cars on the road belong either to them or to the United Nations, which monitors this demilitarized area.

Quneitra is the capital of the Syrian province of Golan, most of which lies on the other side of the so-called Red Line -- under Israeli control.

The Golan was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Quneitra was part of a strip of land returned to Syria seven years later as part of a cease-fire agreement to end the 1973 war with Israel.

The Syrian government has kept Quneitra the way they got it back, in ruins. It is a reminder, they say, of the devastation Israel caused.

Ramadan Ramadan, 70, has lived here with his family for over 50 years.

He welcomes visitors to his modest home and readily talks about the war. He says the family left for a while, but moved back when it was all over. He says he does not mind that hardly anyone else lives here now. He also talks of his family's original home, on the far side of the Red Line, and says maybe one day the children will be able to return.

And that is the sticking point.

"Syria has one major demand. It needs to recuperate the Golan Heights," says political analyst Samir al Taqi, who heads the Orient Center research group in Damascus. He says regaining the Golan is a top priority for Syria and impacts Syria's dealings in the region and with the United States.

"If you go south of Damascus eight kilometers you will begin to see the Israeli positions on Mount Hermon and nobody can rule Damascus without putting the priority on recuperating, I am not saying liberating, but recuperating the Golan Heights," al Taqi says.

Syria has held discussions with Israel about the return of the Golan in the past. It took part in Middle East peace talks in Madrid in 1991. Later efforts broke down in the year 2000 without definitive progress. Then, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz recently revealed that Syria and Israel had been involved in secret, informal talks between 2004 and 2006.

Syria's Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, tells VOA secret talks are not the answer. "Always we were against secret negotiations," he says. "We negotiate with honor, with full light [in the open]. Our Syrian style is clear negotiations and to go on to conclude the principles of Madrid [Madrid peace conference] and to get back our Golan Heights."

Bilal says Syria is ready to talk. But, he says Israel must also be ready to accept and implement U.N. resolutions for its full withdrawal from occupied territory. And, he says an agreement should be reached within a broader Middle East context, to include resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he says is at the center of the problems in the region.

An hour's drive southwest of Damascus in Quneitra, time seems to have stood still.

Two Syrian officers welcome visitors to this last outpost, just outside of town. There is a Syrian security checkpoint and a barrier. Beyond that only U.N. vehicles travel and just down the road flies the Israeli flag where the Israeli occupied part of the Golan begins. The fields and orchards on the other side may be just a kilometer or two away, but they remain far out of reach, at least for now.