U.S. fails to persuade Syria to resume peace negotiations

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Once again, American officials have tried in vain to jump-start the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was unable to secure a pledge to renew peace talks from Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa at a luncheon meeting here last week.

Instead, Sharaa told Christopher Oct. 5 that Syria would not resume talks until Israel agrees to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and drops a demand for an early-warning station on the strategic plateau, according to a U.S. official.

Syria abruptly broke off talks in June after senior military officials from both sides met in Washington, D.C. Damascus halted the negotiations after disagreements peaked in regard to security arrangements that would accompany a presumed Israeli withdrawal from part or all of the Golan Heights.

American officials have been bitter over Syria's backtracking on a deal Christopher had struck to continue high-level face-to-face meetings.

"We felt that we had an agreement on a sequence of steps that would help the parties discuss the security issues," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, referring to the Syrian decision to cut off talks.

Christopher expects "difficult" negotiations over resuming the talks, Burns said.

"Security experts should be involved in the discussions," Burns said. "We'll look for ways to bring both the substance and the procedure on the Israeli-Syrian track together to make progress."

Meanwhile, Israeli officials have denied reports that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Sharaa at the United Nations last week.

"I regret to deny" that there were any such meetings, an Israeli official here said, adding, "We wish that there were but it is just not true."

As Christopher tried to coax Syria to the negotiating table and Israel expressed regret that the sides are not meeting, Syria's government-run media took a hard line, blaming Israel for the delay.

And Sharaa, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 3, took a similar stance.

"Israel wants the negotiations to prevaricate and backtrack from the requirements of peace, in order to impose its conditions," he said.

He called on the United States to "eliminate the obstacles that Israel continues to place on the road to achieving a just and comprehensive peace."

In an earlier address to the U.N. General Assembly, Peres had chastised the Syrians for not sticking to the talks.

Burns, meanwhile, dismissed the Syrian media reports and Sharaa's comments at the United Nations.

"What really matters is what happens in negotiations," he said.

Christopher is expected to meet with Syrian officials later this month after a Middle East economic summit in Amman, Jordan.