DAMASCUS // The French and German foreign ministers, as well as the leading US senator John Kerry, have separately held talks with senior Syrian officials, as part of a flurry of diplomatic activity in Damascus aimed at tamping down regional tensions. Mr Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, met with the president, Bashar Assad, on Saturday, his second such meeting in as many months. No details were made public about the substance of their three-hour discussion and state-run newspapers carried no news of the visit, facts that Syrian analysts said indicated the seriousness of the talks.
"John Kerry is an important link between Washington and Damascus, and with US-Syrian relations under strain, his presence will help to keep that connection open," said Mazen Bilal, an independent Syrian journalist and political commentator. "Kerry has been a strong advocate of dialogue and is prepared to listen to Syria's point of view. His visit will help calm the situation." Tensions have been running high after Israel accused Syria of supplying Hizbollah with powerful Scud ballistic missiles. Although stopping short of supporting those claims, Washington says Damascus has been smuggling more advanced weaponry to the Lebanese militant movement, classified by the United States as a terrorist group.
Syria, technically at war with Israel over the latter's illegal occupation of the Golan Heights, denies the charges and considers Hizbollah, also backed by Iran, to be a legitimate national resistance movement. Under UN resolutions the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria and Hizbollah disarmed. The prospect of either event actually happening remains dim, despite what appears to have been a recent attempt by the Israeli president to cut some kind of a deal on the issue.
According to the Syrian president, a renewed peace offer was floated by Shimon Peres via Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian leader, who made a historic trip to Damascus this month. Mr Assad said the terms conveyed to him by his Russian counterpart proposed an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for Syria's severing of its strategic relationship with Iran and ending of its support for Hizbollah and Palestinian militants, including Hamas.
Syria has rejected such a deal, insisting it will not abandon its links to Tehran or groups opposed to Israeli occupation to bring about the return of stolen land. Damascus also made it clear it believes Mr Peres's reported offer to be a diplomatic sleight of hand, noting that only the hard-line Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could authorise an agreement. Israeli officials say that Mr Peres did give a message to Mr Medvedev to convey to the Syrians, but that it was not an offer over the Golan, rather an assurance that the country was committed to the principle of peace.
Mr Bilal, the Syrian political commentator, said he expected Mr Kerry was told during his visit that Damascus wants to avoid a summer war and is not trying to instigate a conflict. "Syria does not want a military escalation and it will be positive if that message is conveyed to Washington. If Senator Kerry's visit achieves that much, it will be a good thing. We are not talking about a fundamental change in US-Syrian relations, which remain difficult, but a diffusing of immediate problems."
The US president, Barack Obama, has sought to reopen diplomatic channels with Damascus that were severed during the Bush administration, with its policy of trying to isolate Syria. Nonetheless, Mr Obama again renewed economic sanctions this month, citing Damascus's support for terrorism and accusing it of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, held talks with Mr Assad yesterday. The meeting had been scheduled for earlier this month, but was postponed following critical comments by Mr Kouchner over Hizbollah's weapons, and a demand that Syria guarantee border security to stop materiel being smuggled across the frontier.
France has played a leading role in Syria's faltering rehabilitation with the West. Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, also arrived in Damascus yesterday on the final leg of a regional tour for discussions on relaunching the long-stalled Middle East peace process. His visit comes in addition to recent trips to Syria by the Spanish foreign minister and delegations from Kuwait and Qatar.
The intense diplomatic activity has been welcomed by Syrian officials, who have called for broad international involvement in trying to bring about a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Damascus hopes that greater engagement by the European Union and Russia, two members of the so-called Quartet for Middle East peace, will help to offset US support for Israel. Washington, Israel's main ally, has taken a harder stance towards its policies of late, including criticisms of illegal settlement construction. Nevertheless, the United States continues to supply and fund the Israeli military to the tune of billions of dollars annually. firstname.lastname@example.org