Syria will send its deputy foreign minister to the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference this week after the issue of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was added to the agenda, the state-run news agency said Sunday.
SANA said Syria will be represented at the conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad.
The decision was made ''after the Syria track was added to the conference agenda,'' confirmed the agency, but it did not say why it will not be the foreign minister attending like the other Arab participants.
Arab attendance at the Annapolis summit is seen as a victory for the US, which is hoping that broad Arab participation will help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Syria had said it will attend only if the conference discusses the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed. Israel has signaled it is interesting in opening peace talks with Syria, but it wants the summit to focus on the Palestinian issue.
The decision not to send the foreign minister himself appears to indicate that it is not entirely confident the conference will address its concerns over the occupied Golan Heights.
Israel: Syria welcome, but Palestinians first
A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert welcomed Syria's announcement.
''Israel sees as a positive development the participation of a high-ranking Syrian official in the meetings in Annapolis,'' said spokeswoman Miri Eisin. ''The meetings are clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian process, but could be the beginning of new avenues to peace in the Middle East.''
But as 16 Arab nations and the Arab League prepared to sit down with Israel for the first time in more than a decade, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made it clear that they should not expect to dictate the contours of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Livni spoke days after Arab League members grudgingly agreed to send their foreign ministers to the much-anticipated US-hosted conference, meant to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a violent, seven-year lull in negotiations. Most do not have ties with Israel.
On the flight to Washington, Livni suggested that a lack of Arab backing contributed to the failure of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed amid bloodshed in early 2001. The Arab world, she said, ''should stop sitting on the fence.''
''There isn't a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement without Arab support,'' she said. ''That's one of the lessons we learned seven years ago.''
But she also said that ''it is not the role of the Arab world to define the terms of the negotiations or take part in them.''
On the plane carrying her and Olmert to the U.S. for the conference, Livni had expressed confidence that Syria would attend the meeting, reasoning that a session on the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace offered the Syrians a forum to press their position on the Golan.
On the flight, Olmert restated his position that Israel would ''favorably'' consider negotiations with Syria if conditions ripened. Israel first wants Syria to break out of Iran's orbit and stop harboring Palestinian and Lebanese militants opposed to the Jewish state's existence
But Israeli officials have reported recent high-level talks between Israel and Damascus meant to sound out Syria on the prospect of resuming talks, which broke down in 2000.