Syria's president said he was willing to hold direct peace talks with Israel in the future under U.S. sponsorship, laying out his vision of how negotiations could progress.
President Bashar Assad said the preliminary stages of negotiations will be conducted indirectly — both countries recently confirmed that they are holding peace talks through Turkish mediators — and that they don't need a sponsor.
"We believe indirect negotiations are sufficient at this stage as we are still negotiating to find a common ground," he said, according to United Arab Emirates newspaper interviews published Tuesday. He is on a trip to Gulf states to discuss regional issues.
"(But) we are willing to move to direct negotiations once this is reached," he said. "In later stages, they would require international sponsorship especially from the United States, a superpower that has special ties with Israel."
U.S. could have role
The Syrian leader has previously said direct talks with Israel will probably not begin until a new U.S. administration takes office. His latest comments further clarified what role he hopes the U.S. will play in the negotiations.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said neither country has asked Washington to play a role in the talks. He indicated that the U.S. wants to focus for now on the Palestinian-Israeli track which the Bush administration helped relaunch last year.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday told a closed parliamentary meeting that he believes Syria wants peace in order to improve ties with the U.S.
An aide who attended the hearing confirmed Barak's comments, and spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was closed.
An Israeli diplomatic official said the government has no objection to U.S. involvement, but believes it would be premature at this stage since Israel and Syria have not even had a face-to-face meeting. The diplomat also declined to be identified, citing the fragile state of negotiations.
Golan Heights in question
In the interviews published in the Emirates, Assad also reiterated his demand that Israel return all Syrian lands seized in the 1967 Middle East war as part of any peace deal.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau, in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it. Many Israelis are reluctant to relinquish the Golan, which overlooks northern Israel and is a key source of drinking water.
"We have explained our vision for peace and are waiting for the Israeli response. However, our earlier experience in negotiations with Israel was not encouraging, and what Syria is doing now is making sure that Israel is ready for peace," Assad said.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have failed in the past. The last round of talks collapsed in 2000 because of a disagreement over a strip of land along the Sea of Galilee that Israel wanted to keep to preserve its water rights.
The nations have fought three wars, their forces have clashed in Lebanon, and more recently, Syria has given support to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups.
Assad also denied once again that his country has a secret nuclear program. In September, Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian site that the U.S. alleged was a plutonium-producing reactor under construction secretly with help from North Korea.
"The site they attacked wasn't a nuclear site," Assad said.
On Monday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Syria will allow in U.N. inspectors to probe allegations that it was building a nuclear reactor at the site.