Syria Seeks Talks on Golan Heights

Despite the cease-fire in Lebanon, experts in the region say the only way to ensure long-term stability is to bring Syria into the process. Damascus controls the flow of arms to Hezbollah. Syrian officials are hinting they could stop deliveries. But they have a price — a reopening of negotiations on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's turn to one subject of those warnings from President Bush: Syria. Many experts say Syria holds a key to long-term stability; it could restrict the flow of arms to Hezbollah. Of course, there would be a price. New talks on Syrian land occupied by Israel. Syria wants back the occupied portion of the Golan Heights.

NPR's Deborah Amos traveled to a town on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. It's called Quneitra.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Ask for Syrian permission to visit here and the mandatory first stop is the Quneitra hospital, a landmark of ruin. Piles of rubble cover the floor. Walls and ceilings are pocked with bullet holes. Israel occupied the Golan in 1967, handed back some of it seven years later, but not before flattening most of the buildings here in what the United Nations determined was a deliberate act of destruction. The streets remain a jumble of concrete and steel beams that Syria has left unchanged in all these years.

Mr. NAMAN SHALOUB(ph): I love this house.

AMOS: And all of this is your family's land?

Mr. SHALOUB: Yes. Yes.

AMOS: Naman Shaloub traces his grandfather's name on a piece of cracked concrete, all that is left of his family's home. Only a handful of Syrians have been allowed to return to this part of Quneitra. Rebuilding here is forbidden. It is kept as a monument to Syrian loss.

Mr. JEAN-JACQUES FRESARD (International Committee of the Red Cross, Damascus): There's not a single day where the authorities do not speak about recovering the sovereignty of Syria on the Golan Heights.

AMOS: Jean-Jacques Fresard is the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus. He facilitates what little contact there is between Syria and Israel, where some 17,000 Syrians live under Israeli occupation. Fresard works on arranging family visits across the demarcation line.

Mr. FRESARD: Because these people have been split from each other, mostly since 1967, so we have tried to convince the Israeli authorities to allow those people to come over, but until today we have not been able to implement this kind of operation. So this is one of our major objectives now for the next few months.

AMOS: Over the past few years, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has reversed some of his father's policies. He's encouraged construction outside the security zone on the Golan, building free houses for former residents, a new road, a school. This has been the most peaceful disputed area for 33 years. Still, getting back the Golan Heights remains a national obsession, says Andrew Tabler, an American journalist based in Syria. He points to recent military training films broadcast on Syrian TV.

Mr. ANDREW TABLER (Fellow, Institute of World Affairs): And the final one was soldiers hopping down a rocky hillside, which, of course, to all Syrians, means liberating the Golan. And not only were they hopping down the Golan, but there were sparks flying off of their heels.

AMOS: It was a message, says Tabler, to Syrians and to a wider audience.

Mr. TABLER: The reason why they're speaking in this way is not just for propaganda purposes, which it does function that way, but it's a way of saying to Washington - which no longer speaks with Syria - that here's what we want.

AMOS: There have been some openings over the years. Negotiations brokered by the Clinton administration came to close to a deal before the two sides backed away. Syria called for talks again in 2002, but was ignored by Israel and Washington. Jean-Jacque Fresard, with the ICRC, says negotiations won't be easy. In 2005, he worked on a plan for Syrian farmers on the Israeli side to sell a surplus apple crop in Syria.

Mr. FRESARD: So, believe me, it took us five months just to agree on bringing in 4,000 tons of apples, which is really not such a big deal. We had to bring trucks with Swiss plates and the drivers came from Kenya, just to give you an idea of how difficult it's going to be to agree on anything more important than this. We didn't see any other opening on the Golanese issue from either side.

AMOS: Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi does see new openings in recent articles in the Israeli press.

Mr. IBRAHIM HAMIDI (Journalist): Some Israeli analysts, some Israeli officials, are saying we have to talk to Syria.

AMOS: On the Golan, the mayor of Quneitra, Abdul Karim al-Omar(ph), shares those hopes.

Mayor ABDUL KARIM AL-OMAR (Quneitra): (Through translator) Maybe it is now closer, maybe it is imminent, because the whole region needs peace.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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