Syria, U.S. agree on idea of Mideast conference U.N. would play 'significant role'

April 13, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria and the United States agreed yesterday on the idea of a peace conference, with a "significant role" for the United Nations, leading to direct Arab-Israeli talks.

The deal marked a major advance toward a meeting aimed at breaking down the decades-long barriers to direct talks among Arab states, Israelis and Palestinians.

But its vague terms illustrated the way fundamental obstacles to peace are being skirted in order to reach a conference, thus postponing the tough bargaining necessary.

The move followed 5 1/2 hours of talks Thursday between Syrian President Hafez el Assad and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia had already backed the idea of a conference, although key differences remain between Israel and the Arab states.

Later yesterday, Jordan joined the list when its foreign minister, Taher al-Masri, said it was willing to have a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Such a move has been advanced as a way of including Palestinians without the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Syria, one of Israel's most bitter enemies, had been viewed as the toughest sell among the Arab states that the United States wants to include in a peace process.

It has long demanded that Israel withdraw from the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights and recently urged the United Nations to employ force, if necessary, to achieve that goal.

Mr. Assad's agreement to join Israel in a peace conference without an explicit commitment from Israel to negotiate on territory is a substantial concession.

Syria wants to reclaim the Golan Heights and also prides itself on being a champion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The United States and Syria agreed that "all the parties concerned should seek a comprehensive and just peace in the (( region based on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 and that a conference [is] to be held in order to implement these U.N. resolutions," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said at a news conference with Mr. Baker.

The U.N. resolutions call for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and to be allowed to live in peace within secure borders.

But a State Department official said Israel and the Arab states had decided to avoid trying to reconcile different interpretations of the resolutions until after direct talks were under way.

This means Israel's assertion that the resolutions don't require it to cede all the territory it seized in the 1967 war won't block the start of a peace conference.

Mr. Baker said there was "general agreement" that "the parties are going to have to arrive at peace, if it's going to be arrived at, through direct negotiation."

Mr. al-Sharaa agreed that "the objective . . . of the peace conference is not to dictate to the parties, but to be effective, and to follow up [with] the talks of the parties concerned in the conference."

But the "significant" U.N. role cited by Mr. al-Sharaa probably will require a concession from Israel. Mr. Baker did not say that the United States had agreed to it, but he did not contradict Mr. al-Sharaa either then or later, when he was asked about it in Geneva.

"We ought not to get too hung up on the question of auspices and questions such as that," he said.

Israel has consistently rejected the idea of a conference sponsored by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France. Israel agrees to Soviet participation -- and joint sponsorship if Moscow first restores full diplomatic relations -- but wants to cut out China, Britain and France, fearing that the conference would otherwise be stacked in favor of Palestinian sympathizers.

Neither Mr. al-Sharaa nor Mr. Baker would explain what was meant by a "significant" U.N. role, which no one has mentioned until now.

"I'm not inclined to go into details, because this is what we referred [to] when we said there are certain points which require further discussion," Mr. al-Sharaa said.

Syria also avoided referring to the proposed meeting as an international conference, implying that it would occur under U.N. auspices.

Mr. al-Sharaa told Reuters later that "Syria opposes the regional conference and wants a peace conference in which the United Nations would have a significant role."

"Regional conference" is the term favored by Israel.

Mr. Baker, asked in Geneva later whether Syria was backtracking, said there was no point in quibbling over words.

"What you call a conference, I mean the adjective you put in front of the word conference, it seems to me is really not anywhere near as important as whether or not the parties truly want to sit down and meet and have direct negotiations for peace.

"I think it's quite logical to call this a peace conference," Mr. Baker said, adopting the al-Sharaa formulation.

Mr. al-Sharaa agreed with the United States that the conference would involve the United States, the Soviet Union, Israel, Arab states and Palestinians.

Arab states included would be Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states, and possibly Jordan acting for the Palestinians.

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