DAMASCUS, Syria(AP)- Syria is softening its refusal to attend the Annapolis peace conference and already has won dividends, including a visit from Jordan’s king that marked an end to regional isolation. But as it bends, it risks alienating Palestinian militants and its ally Iran.
Syria was unlikely to announce a final decision on whether it will go to the conference until after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to be held in Cairo on Friday to map out a joint strategy.
Publicly, Syrian officials have said Syria would not go unless its demands for the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, are addressed.
State-run newspapers, which reflect government thinking, continued Wednesday to criticize the conference, calling it “suspicious.”
But intense diplomatic activity toward Damascus and comments made by President Bashar Assad this week suggest that possible deals to secure Syrian attendance might be worked out behind the scenes. On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he believed Syria’s foreign minister would attend.
At a meeting of Syria’s leadership Monday, Assad said the region is witnessing events that “could have grave impact on the future of the countries and peoples if they are not dealt with in a rational way.” His words were taken to mean the peace conference in the U.S.
And the United States seems to have met some of Syria’s demands to prod Damascus into going to Annapolis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States will give room for those other conflicts to be aired at Annapolis, including Syria’s dispute with Israel over the Golan.
Despite sour relations between the U.S. and Syria, the Bush administration appears keen on a Syrian presence at Monday’s conference in Annapolis, which would give the impression that Syria can be lured out of Iran’s orbit and into the Arab fold. Syria, which the United States accuses of being a state sponsor of terror, is an archenemy of Israel and supports radical anti-Israel Palestinian factions.
“They want to show everyone that Syria can be tamed, taken away from the Iranian axis,” said Ahmad Haj Ali, a political analyst and member of Syria’s ruling Baath party.
“If Syria goes, it would have achieved what the others want without achieving anything for itself. The price will be extremely high,” he said.
Syrian lawmaker Mohammed Habash said Syria was keeping its options open, but said Syria is not interested in going to Annapolis “to attend a carnival.”
Habash said Syria is the “spinal cord” of a front that includes Iran, the “resistance” in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas. “If Syria goes to such a conference, it will naturally shake this alliance. So do not think for one second that Syria would go just to get a piece of chocolate over there,” he said. “It would be political folly.”
Hamas, whose leadership is based in Damascus, has dismissed the conference as lacking seriousness and only aiming at covering up a future American attack against Iran.
On Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that participation “depends on what kind of invitation we are going to receive … what kind of agenda” and other factors. Still, he insists that if the Golan is not on the agenda “there is absolutely nothing to justify our participation.”
There’s also a wild card: Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Syrian factions are caught in a political crisis over picking its next president. If they cannot find a consensus president by a Friday night deadline, the turmoil may increase, and the U.S. and Arab countries are likely to blame Syria — poisoning the atmosphere for its joining Annapolis.
An official in the government of U.S.-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Wednesday that the government would attend Annapolis, but likely at a low level. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not yet been made.
The gains Syria could ultimately gain by participating might prove to be too tempting to pass up. And they are already showing.
Internationally isolated and ostracized by its Arab counterparts for the past two years, Syria found itself this week being lobbied hard for its attendance — signaling recognition of its role in the region by the international community.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II made a rare trip to Syria, his first in nearly four years, to try to get Assad on board the Annapolis meeting. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in recent days that he hoped Syria would take part.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov, following talks with Assad Tuesday, said the Syrians are interested in making the Annapolis meeting a success.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi, “while understanding some of the Syrian reservations” about Annapolis’ agenda, urged Syria’s president, in a telephone conversation Wednesday evening, to participate in the conference, the premier’s office said.
Habash, the legislator, said Syria is being offered all kinds of “temptations” to attend. “But the temptations must at least be convincing. The bottom line is the Golan,” he said.