Syria, Lebanon Shun Disarmament Meeting : Mideast: Participants say progress is unlikely without two key players.


The latest round of Middle East disarmament talks opened here Tuesday, but Syria and Lebanon stayed away from the negotiating table and other participants said substantial progress is unlikely.

A 38-nation working group, including Israel, Jordan and a host of Asian and European advisers, are meeting for three days to lay out proposals for regional arms control. But with two key players boycotting the talks, the session will focus primarily on "confidence building," one Western diplomat said.

Syria and Lebanon have refused to attend the negotiations until their governments are satisfied that one-on-one talks with Israel, which resumed in Washington on Monday after a 10-day recess, are moving forward.

The Palestinian delegation will also be out of the loop during the meetings here, which are co-sponsored by the United States and Russia. Israel blocked their participation in the arms control group, arguing that only sovereign nations with standing armies should participate.

Although other Arab countries publicly supported Syria and Lebanon, diplomats privately expressed irritation and said they fear that the boycotts could hold up progress.

"If we said categorically that we were fed up with these talks because they never produced results, we would never achieve anything," Jordanian diplomat Ahmed Ali Mubaydeen said in an interview. "We can't have any lasting peace without the participation of Syria and Lebanon."

But Syria, at least, seemed unlikely to attend an arms control session anytime soon, since the direct talks with Israel in Washington seemed to be making little progress.

"If we don't receive anything in two-sided negotiations, what's the point of participating in these multinational talks?" Syrian diplomat Bassam Haj Hussain said in Moscow. "So far, we haven't received anything positive from Israel."

Moscow-based Israeli diplomat Yosef Ben-Dor returned the accusation of foot-dragging, charging that Syria's boycott "unfortunately reinforces our suspicions: When Syria talks about peace, we wonder what they mean."

On Monday, Syria's chief negotiator in Washington flatly rejected an Israeli offer to consider withdrawing some troops from the Golan Heights, territory that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. Syria is holding out for a total pullout.

Negotiators reported no progress Tuesday.

"We spent about three hours, so for sure we were elaborating and discussing--but no progress yet," said the Syrian negotiator, Mouwafak Allaf.

His Israeli counterpart, Itamar Rabinovich, was marginally more optimistic.

"We reached a point at which we are trying to compare texts of the two papers. There are points of disagreement, and it's not possible to make swift and dramatic progress every day," he said.

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