a ray of hope ...

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    Last Update: 07/10/2004 17:51
    Martin Indyk: Assad offering to make peace with Israel

    By The Associated Press

    WASHINGTON - Syrian President Bashar Assad is offering to make peace with Israel and says he is ready to cooperate with the United States in stabilizing Iraq, a former senior State Department official said Wednesday.

    "Something is going on in Syria and it is time for us to pay attention," said Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for the Near East and U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration.

    In a three-hour meeting with the Syrian president last month in Damascus, Indyk said he detected a "clear change" in Assad's views on a number of fronts.

    On peacemaking, Assad offered to hold talks with Israel without preconditions, Indyk said, and had made several overtures to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the latter rebuffed.

    In the past, Indyk said, Syria had insisted that any peace talks should resume where they left off during the Clinton administration - with Israel offering to give up all of the Golan Heights, a strategic area Israel won in the 1967 Mideast war.

    And, Indyk said, Assad had dropped a demand that Israel reach an agreement with the Palestinians before Israel could resume negotiations with Syria.

    On the domestic side, Indyk said, Assad spoke "about the need to reform the government."

    "It's worth watching and it is worth testing," Indyk said at a seminar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, of which Indyk is the director.

    Indyk said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was not at his meeting with Assad, evidence the former American diplomat said that change was under way and that al-Sharaa "and others in the old guard are being systematically silenced."

    On Monday, Assad shuffled his Cabinet. Ghazi Kenaan, 62, until two years ago Syria's top intelligence general in neighboring Lebanon, was named interior minister. Al-Sharaa retained his post.

    Assad switches to cooperation with U.S. over Iraq

    On Iraq, Assad "figured out he was on the wrong side" and has switched to cooperation with the U.S. occupation forces in the country, Indyk said.

    On support for terrorism, Assad was responding to U.S. demands by moving some leaders of militant Palestinian groups out of Damascus, Indyk said.

    Last month, Syria was praised publicly by Secretary of State Colin Powell for dismantling military camps in the hills near Beirut, Lebanon.

    Powell told reporters after a meeting with Al-Sharaa that the redeployment of Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon was "a positive step."

    At the same time, the State Department has continued to call for a crackdown on terror. And Syria remains one of seven countries branded by the department as sponsors of terror.

    Thousands of Syrian troops also remain in Lebanon despite passage on September 2nd of a UN Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal and for Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty.

    Also, President George W. Bush's administration has accused Syria of pursuing biological and chemical weapons programs as well as nuclear weapons.

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