UK urges Syria to resume Israel peace talks
By Anna Fifield in Beirut. Published: November 18 2008 18:52 | Last updated: November 18 2008 18:52.David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, said on Tuesday Syria had an ”essential role” to play in the stability of the Middle East and urged it to press ahead with peace talks with Israel. Mr Miliband’s comments, made during the highest-level British visit to Syria in eight years, underscored the steady improvement in relations between Europe and Syria, a country that US once labelled as part of an ”axis of evil”. Mr Miliband said Britain supported the indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, mediated by Turkey, which were suspended two months ago following the decision of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, to step down as leader of the ruling Kadima party. ”We welcome the four rounds of talks that have taken place... and we hope that they will be taken forward with new force,” Mr Miliband said on Tuesday after meeting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. ”This is a region of great conflict but also of great history. It is important that those with power in the region exercise it with great responsibility,” he said in Damascus. Mr Miliband is the highest level British official to visit Syria since Tony Blair, the former prime minister, in 2001. Mr Assad told him that a just and comprehensive peace was ”the only way” to establish security and stability in the Middle East. ”The peace process in the region needs seriousness on the part of Israel, an honest sponsor and an active European role, as well as concerted international efforts,” Mr Assad said, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
Syria and Israel have held four rounds of indirect talks, at the centre of which is the status of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the six-day war in 1967 and later annexed. Syria wants the territory back, while Israel wants Damascus to stop supporting Hizbollah and Hamas, the militant Islamist movements, and to distance itself from Iran. Syria was shunned by Europe following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. Damascus was suspected of being behind the killing but denies all involvement. But the talks with Israel and a growing western belief that, as George W. Bush prepares to leave office, Damascus may be prepared to temper its hardline positions have kick-started a process of international rehabilitation. This began in earnest in July when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, invited Bashar al-Assad, his Syrian counterpart, to national day celebrations in Paris and then travelled to Damascus in September. Last month Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, visited Mr Miliband in London for an encounter aimed at accelerating this process. But their meeting came just one day after a US raid on a Syrian village close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people, one of whom was allegedly smuggling militant fighters into Iraq. Mr Miliband used Tuesday’s visit to criticise Syria’s support for Hamas. ”I would argue that Palestinian disunity and Hamas violence hurts the cause of Syria which says it believes in comprehensive peace,” said Mr Miliband, who had previously visited Israel and was due to travel on to Lebanon last night.