Veteran US Diplomat Djerejian to Explore Syrian, Israeli Intentions

At its wits’ end to pierce the thicket of rhetoric emanating from Damascus and Jerusalem, the White House has plucked the veteran Middle East hand, Edward P. Djerejian, from academia for a fresh initiative to try and decode the conflicting signals broadcast by the Assad regime on whether or not and under what conditions they are prepared to resume peace talks.
It has been a month since Assad gave his seemingly groundbreaking interview to the New York Times and two weeks since he visited Ankara and hinted to Turkish leaders that if it were up to him, he would resume peace talks with Israel immediately
Wednesday, January 14, Damascus rejected Israeli president Moshe Katsav’s public invitation to Assad to put his money where his mouth is and come to Jerusalem. It was Katsav’s intention to bring some clarity to the verbal jousting. However, Syrian prime minister Naji Otri said there could be no peace with Israel as long as Ariel Sharon headed the “Zionist regime”. Other Syrian officials, including Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister of expatriates and one of Assad’s close associates, said Katsav’s offer was “not serious”.
There was no hint in any of Syria’s official statements of the infighting going on inside the Syrian administration.
Last Saturday, January 10, US senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) spent five hours in Damascus, where he met Assad. Later, he gave two conflicting reports of their conversation. In the first, which caused a sensation in the Israeli media, Nelson quoted Assad as accepting Sharon’s condition to start any renewed peace negotiations from scratch – not necessarily from the point they were broken off four years ago when Ehud Barak was prime minister.
But on Thursday, January 15, members of the Nelson party to Damascus leaked a quite different report. The senator was described as harboring strong doubts about whether Assad was really in control of his regime or strong enough to pursue a peace course in the face of resistance from the old guard left over from his late father Hafez.
Reports reaching debkafile‘s Middle Eastern sources confirm that these veterans have moved into action to plug the shower of leaks from Damascus that indicate the president’s willingness to restart talks. They are led by such powerful figures as vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, foreign minister Farouk a-Shara, army chief Hassan Turkmani and defense minister Mustapha Tlass – whose daughter Nahed met Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom’s senior adviser Ron Prossor, in Paris last month.
These hard-liners are stating firmly that Assad never meant to meet Ariel Sharon’s condition that negotiations start from scratch. On the contrary, they must be picked up from the point at which they collapsed and after Israel effectively agreed to relinquish almost all of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace. On a side note, the old-timers suggested that this and other misunderstandings were rooted in the manner in which the Syrian foreign ministry and Shaaban mispresented the government’s position to the world.
The old Hafez loyalists have long regarded Shaaban as a dangerous new broom in the on-going rivalry for influence.
The Bush administration is left stumped by the inconsistencies in Damascus and the uncertain responses of Jerusalem. According to debkafile‘s sources in Washington, the White House has decided on a two-week cooling period at the end of which Djerejian, former ambassador to Israel and Syria and current head of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, will pay lightning trips to both capitals. Baker himself, the president’s envoy on Iraqi debt relief and a former secretary of state, may also be involved at some point.
Djerejian will seek clear answers from the Syrian and Israeli leaders on just where they stand on restarting peace talks, conditions, format and agendas, and whether or not a face-to-face meeting is desired.
Djerejian’s Damascus leg will be the more important of the two. Before the question of Syrian-Israeli talks is broached, the US envoy will confront the Syrian president with probing questions on the issues of Syrian involvement in the anti-American guerrilla war in Iraq, the storage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in Syria, the Syrian military presence in Lebanon and Assad’s support for Hizballah terrorists.

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