WASHINGTON – The Sunday Times reported that Syria is expected to demand American help in securing the return of the Golan Heights from Israel as the price of cooperation over Iraq.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a leading reformer in the ruling Ba’ath party, told the Times that Syrian President Bashar Assad wants America and Britain to use their influence with Israel to raise the return of the Golan Heights, seized by the Israelis in the 1967 war.
“It will be the top demand,” he was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
According to the report, Assad has ruled out cooperating with the Americans in return for the promise of unspecified benefits.
“The Syrian leadership is fed up with the Americans and does not trust their word when it comes to future aid for Syria,” Abdel Nour told the Sunday Times.
“Syria will not do anything unless it has secured guarantees from Washington and London that every action Damascus takes to help them will be reciprocated. It will be a step by step scenario: These actions for those actions,” he said.
'We were very honest'
The New York Times recently reported that Former US Secretary of State James Baker, co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group examining strategic options in Iraq, has met several times with Syrian officials to discuss cooperation with the United States.
Imad Mustafa, Syria’s ambassador to the US, told the newspaper in an interview that Baker has asked Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during a meeting in New York in September: "What would it take Syria to help on Iraq?"
Mustafa admitted to participating in two meetings with Baker, during which, according to him, the Syrians “detailed what we can and cannot do. We were very honest. We explained to them that it’s a national interest of ours to assist in stabilizing the situation in Iraq.
According to the Sunday Times, Assad also insists that any help must be dependent on a timetable for US troop withdrawals, a move resisted by President George W Bush.
Shaul Bakhash, an expert on the Middle East at George Mason University, Washington, was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying: “Neither Iran nor Syria will do a favor for the US without wanting something back — and what both countries want are things that the US is not willing to give them.”
The Syrians, the Sunday Times said, believe they are in a position of strength.
“Already there is talk that Syria is the winner and will set the new rules of the game in the region,” Abdel Nour told the newspaper.
However, it does not appear that Bush is prepared to dramatically change his policy; during a recent appearance prior to embarking for Vietnam the president called on Syria stop meddling in Lebanese affairs and stop supporting Hizbullah and Palestinian terror groups.