BEIRUT, Lebanon – Fearful of being left behind, Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) has been saying something quite startling — that he is willing to resume peace talks with Israel (search) unconditionally.
The Israeli and U.S. response has been lukewarm, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) insisting last week that Syria first must crack down on militants. Publicly, Assad's government has backpedaled.
Yet the overtures — documented by visitors including U.N. Mideast envoy Terje Roed-Larsen — are another clear sign of how a virtually dead Middle East peace process has suddenly reached its most hopeful moment in years.
"I don't think anybody is sitting very comfortably and nobody is pleased with the status quo," said Rami Khouri, executive editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star. "I think everybody — the Syrians and Israelis — are eager and even, I would say, desperate for a negotiated peace."
The Syrian outreach may yield little, despite the optimism. Many analysts believe Sharon will focus first on talks with Palestinians, who are seen by Israelis as more open to deals after the death of Yasser Arafat and next month's Palestinian elections.
And the United States appears far more interested in pressuring Syria to stop militants from crossing into Iraq than in any vague peace overtures.
Yet Assad has clear reasons for reaching out now.
"I would wager to say it has a lot to do with U.S. pressure," said Jonathan Lincoln, a senior research associate at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Washington labels Syria a sponsor of terrorism and imposed economic sanctions a year ago. It focuses especially on getting Syria to stop the flow of militants across its border into Iraq, and although Syria has made some moves in that direction, they have not satisfied the Bush administration.
Now, with U.S. troops right at its border with Iraq and a U.N. resolution also calling for Syria's withdrawal from neighboring Lebanon, "it seems that this pressure is sort of increasing," Lincoln said.
Assad needs international cooperation and credibility — in short, a fair and comprehensive peace deal — to move his country forward, Khouri said.
Then there is Syria's fear of getting left behind by advances in the region.
On Sunday, a series of dramatic relations-warming moves between Israel and Egypt was capped by a high-profile prisoner swap.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision to free Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab convicted of spying for Israel, in exchange for six Egyptian students held by Israel reversed years of government policy.
A year ago, Mubarak dismissed Israel's prime minister as incapable of making peace. Today, he calls Sharon the region's best chance for an end to hostilities.
Whenever there is movement on the Palestinian-Israeli peace track, as there is now after Arafat's death, Syria acts "to remind the world that there can be no total global peace without them and that they want the Golan (Heights) back," said Patrick Seale, a British writer and expert on Syria.
"They don't want to be left out," Seale said from Paris.
Indeed, on Monday Syria is receiving several Palestinian leaders who have been consulting key Arabs on the Palestinians' post-Arafat future.
Yet motivation alone won't necessarily lead to actual Syria-Israel talks.
After Assad spoke in private meetings, Syrian officials scrambled to publicly reiterate their main condition — the resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks from the point they broke off in 2000. At the time, Syria wanted assurances that it would get back all of the Golan Heights lost in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel wanted slight modifications in the pre-1967 border and insisted that issues of security and normalization be spelled out first.
Israel now says the talks should start from scratch, and at first dismissed Assad's offer as insincere. Then Sharon on Thursday repeated the condition that Syria first crack down on Palestinian militants.
Assad himself, meanwhile, has remained silent in public.
The negotiations themselves have always boiled down to Syria demanding the return of the Golan — the strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel — and Israel insisting Syria agree to full peace with trade and open borders. Israel, while hesitant to give back the Golan, recognizes that no final peace deal can be reached without Syria.
Sharon indicated Thursday that Israel could be persuaded to withdraw from the Golan. In January, he made a rare acknowledgment among hard-liners when he said that Israel would have to relinquish the Golan as the price of a settlement.
Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon and it controls the militant Lebanese Hezbollah, whose rockets can strike Israel's north. Damascus also harbors leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the militant Palestinian groups that send suicide bombers into Israeli towns.
Although the two countries rarely clash directly, the possibility of violence can never be written off. Less than three months ago a car bomb blamed on Israel killed a Hamas leader in Damascus.