Assad Confirms Turkish Mediation in Purported Peace Offer From Israel

Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed in remarks published Thursday Turkish mediation between his country and Israel but suggested there would be no direct negotiations with the Jewish state until a new U.S. administration takes office.

Assad's comments in Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper provided the first details of Turkish mediation, which Damascus says has yielded an Israeli offer for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria.

He said Turkey began its mediation in April last year and that there would be no secret talks with Israel. The preliminary stages of talks, he said, would be held with Turkey as a go-between.

"Maybe with the coming administration in the United States we can talk about direct negotiations," he told Al-Watan, which only published excerpts of the interview.

He said the United States was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Israel, which captured the strategic heights in the 1967 Mideast war, has declined to comment on the reported offer to return the Golan in return for peace with Syria.

Officials in the Syrian presidency confirmed that Assad gave the interview and did not dispute its contents.

Syria and Israel last held peace negotiations in 2000. Those talks collapsed over the extent of Israel's proposed withdrawal.

Assad told Al-Watan that he would discuss details of Ankara's mediation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visits Damascus on Saturday.

A week ago, he said, Syria received the news that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "assured the Turkish prime minister of his readiness to return the Golan.

"What we need now is finding common ground through the Turkish mediator."

Both Assad and Olmert have in recent days said their countries had exchanged messages. Olmert told Israeli newspapers last week the messages clarified what each would expect from a future peace deal.

It is not clear yet how much of the Golan Israel was prepared to return or what are its conditions for a withdrawal. Israel has demanded Syria agree to a full peace deal and halt its support for militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Olmert has never committed himself publicly on a return of the Golan, saying only he is willing to resume peace talks with Syria if it drops its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Turkey has close relations with both Israel and Syria as well as with the United States.

Assad said direct negotiations needed a sponsor "and this can only be the United States." He also criticized the policies of the Bush administration, saying "it does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything."

Syria has had poor relations with the Bush administration as well as Washington's regional allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, particularly over what they see as the obstructive role played by Damascus to efforts aimed at resolving Lebanon's political crisis.

The Syria-Israel contacts are taking place despite tension between the two neighbors over an Israeli air raid on a Syrian military facility in September. Some foreign reports say the target was a nuclear installation being built with North Korean assistance.

Damascus says the facility was military, but not a nuclear one.