Syria Will Attend U.S.-Sponored Mideast Peace Conference

Syria will send its deputy foreign minister to the U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference this week after the issue of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was added to the agenda, the state-run news agency said Sunday.

SANA said Syria will be represented at the conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad.

The decision was made "after the Syria track was added to the conference agenda," confirmed the agency, but it did not say why it will not be the foreign minister attending like the other Arab participants.

Arab attendance at the Annapolis summit is seen as a victory for the U.S., which is hoping that broad Arab participation will help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Syria had said it will attend only if the conference discusses the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed. Israel has signaled it is interesting in opening peace talks with Syria, but it wants the summit to focus on the Palestinian issue.

The decision not to send the foreign minister himself appears to indicate that it is not entirely confident the conference will address its concerns over the occupied Golan Heights.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert welcomed Syria's announcement.

"Israel sees as a positive development the participation of a high-ranking Syrian official in the meetings in Annapolis," said spokeswoman Miri Eisin. "The meetings are clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian process, but could be the beginning of new avenues to peace in the Middle East."

In 2000, formal U.S.-sponsored Israel-Syria talks neared agreement but broke down over final border and peace arrangements. Since then, reports of talks have popped up occasionally -- most recently a half-year ago when Israeli media reported that Olmert had relayed messages to Damascus through Turkey.

But those reported talks did not lead to a breakthrough, and over the summer, war talk between Syria and Israel heated up -- capped by a September air strike by Israel into northern Syria.