Syria said Sunday that it had decided to attend a U.S.-sponsored conference on Middle East peace after concluding that the agenda would allow it to press its demand for a return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The decision raised the prospect that Israel might eventually resume peace talks with Syria, aiding what appears to be a nascent American effort to woo the Syrians away from their alliance with Iran.
Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad would represent the country at the two-day conference, which opens tonight with a dinner in Washington and moves Tuesday to Annapolis, Md.
Although other countries are sending higher-ranking officials, the Bush administration appeared to be satisfied by the announcement, given the previous uncertainty that the Syrians would attend at all.
“We’ll obviously see what they have to say when they get here,” said Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor.
All of the more than one dozen Arab countries invited to the gathering have now agreed to come, giving Washington a chance to display broad regional support for a revival of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
By extending an invitation to Syria, the administration appeared to be moving to draw what it considers a pariah regime into efforts to reach a peace agreement. Syria at first said it would not attend unless the future of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, was on the agenda. Israel and Syria last held talks in 2000 on a formal end to that conflict but could not reach a deal.
U.S. officials initially rejected Syria’s condition for coming to Annapolis, saying the conference would focus entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But later they added a conference session to discuss a “comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”
That was enough to satisfy Syria that it could use the gathering to demand a return of the captured territory.
“We received what we have asked for, which is the [conference] schedule, and on it is the ‘Syrian-Israeli track,’ ” said a Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Based on that, we decided to go.”
Another Syrian involved in the decision said, “We have to use every opportunity we get to raise the issue of Golan. Wasting this chance will harm our efforts.”
Hadley, in a conference call with reporters, said the Golan Heights was not specifically on the agenda but added that the Syrians were “free to address the issues that they want to address.”
“There is, of course, a recognition that to get to a comprehensive peace there will have to be negotiations in the future in separate tracks involving, of course, Israelis and Syrians, Israelis and Lebanese,” he said. “And there will have to be . . . discussion . . . about a broader Israeli-Arab reconciliation.”
But he emphasized: “Those will all be future and separate discussions.”
Israeli officials welcomed Syria’s announcement. But they cautioned that a resumption of talks depended on a show of Syria’s willingness to break from Iran’s orbit and stop harboring Palestinian and Lebanese militants opposed to the Jewish state’s existence.
“At Annapolis, we’re going to see Arab countries that support the Middle East peace process,” said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “If Syria’s decision to come is an indication of movement in its political orientation, then this is very positive.”
En route to Washington before Syria’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government would “favorably” consider talks with Syria if conditions ripened.
Syria’s decision was certain to upset Iran, its most important ally. Earlier Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced regret that so many Middle Eastern countries would attend a conference that “has no benefit for the oppressed Palestinian nation” and would only serve the interests of “the Zionist occupiers.”
Arab participation at Annapolis is “an indication of the lack of intelligence of some so-called politicians” in the region, the Iranian leader said, according to Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Iran was not invited to the gathering, which is aimed at shoring up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against the Islamic movement Hamas and endorsing his effort to reach a peace settlement with Israel. Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction.
A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Sami abu Zuhri, did not criticize the Syrian decision but said Hamas would have preferred a collective Arab boycott of the conference.
“The Syrian leadership is the one to evaluate its own interests, the way it sees fit,” he said.
Arab nations had wavered until Friday, when delegates of the Arab League met in Cairo and decided to attend. Saudi Arabia, the most influential Arab country that lacks diplomatic relations with Israel, joined in that decision, but Syria held out.
Its decision Sunday to send Mekdad instead of his boss, the foreign minister, was interpreted in Damascus as a small concession to Iran. But Mekdad, a seasoned diplomat, is nonetheless considered an influential member of Syria’s political elite.
Times special correspondent Haydar reported from Damascus and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Annapolis, Md. Staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.