Syrian-Israeli contacts worry Iran, Hezbollah

By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann, DPA,

Istanbul : “Will there be another war this summer?” is a question frequently heard in Arab capitals these days.

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Israel is allegedly seeking a pretext to attack the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and perhaps to humiliate Syria will new air raids as well.

According to another theory, it is Hezbollah, which proved a tough foe in its war with Israel two years ago that is itching to fight the Jewish state again with Iran’s support.

Secret, indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel – held since April 2007 with Turkish mediation and publicly confirmed by Turkey and Syria for the first time last week – make no sense at all in this context. Or do they?

Arab commentators conjecture that Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in order to break Syria’s tight embrace with Iran, Israel’s archenemy.

A commentator from the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat wrote that by concluding a peace treaty with Syria, Israel could “strike Iran in the middle of the heart” and also weaken Hezbollah, which is said to be still getting Iranian weapons via Syria.

The discreet Turkish mediators, working under the aegis of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have so far kept mum on details of the contacts between Olmert and Assad. “We’re still at the very beginning,” remarked Foreign Minister Ali Babacan dismissively.

But if one believes Syria’s ex-vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who has been calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime since 2006 from Paris, then the talks have already progressed quite far.

Khaddam also claims that the Turks are not merely “letter carriers”, but have presented compromise proposals of their own to the hostile neighbours.

Khaddam cites US sources that are supposedly well informed of the course of the covert talks.

He says Israel has offered Assad a complete withdrawal from part of the Golan Heights, and that the area in question may be somewhat smaller than what Israel offered his late father, president Hafez al-Assad, during talks in Geneva in 2000.

Israel is said to want to lease the rest of the Golan from Syria for several decades.

Khaddam and a number of neutral Arab observers surmise that Iran and Hezbollah not only play a role in Israel’s equation but also in the calculations of Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to wriggle out of the international isolation he manoeuvred himself into on account of his close partnership with Teheran.

Assad allegedly also hopes that peace negotiations with Israel could end an investigation of his brother-in-law and other Syrian officials who are suspected – possibly with Assad’s knowledge – of pulling the strings in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri.