WASHINGTON -- Syria has informed the United States that it does not intend to participate in one of the three phases of the U.S.-crafted Middle East peace talks, a move U.S. officials fear may induce other Arab countries to remain on the sidelines and make the negotiations less appealing for Israel.
According to Middle Eastern diplomats and U.S. officials, the Syrians told Washington they do not plan to take part in the negotiations involving Israel about regional problems -- like water rights, economic development and arms control.
The United States had envisioned these discussions as an importantaccompaniment to the direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus.
The Syrian move, which was conveyed to Secretary of State James A. Baker III by Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa during a heated meeting in New York on Sept. 26, could have a dampening effect on the proposed peace conference.
This is because the United States has promised Israel that the wider-based talks would include Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with whom Israel has never had diplomatic contact, and would signal that Israel might one day win recognition and acceptance in the whole Arab world.
The Syrians have decided, though, that such talks, which Washington viewed as a carrot to induce Israel to join in the process, constituted a concession, one they were not willing to make until and unless Israel commits itself to returning the Golan Heights, diplomats said.
Administration officials have gone out of their way not to disclose the Syrian move as Mr. Baker continues to try, through private diplomatic channels, to persuade Damascus to change its mind.
The negotiations the Syrians are balking at attending are one of three integrated stages in the peace talks that Mr. Baker has been trying to organize. The first stage is a purely ceremonial opening session to be held somewhere in Europe later this month. The Arabs, and particularly the Syrians, insisted on this ceremonial opening to give the talks an international cover.
The second stage is to be separate, direct talks between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The Syrians are still agreeing to engage in these two-way talks with Israel, but there is no agreement as to where or how they will be conducted.
Two weeks after these talks begin, Mr. Baker promised, the broad negotiations would take place over regional problems.
The Syrians told Mr. Baker, the diplomats said, that the only thing they have to discuss with Israel right now is exchanging land for secure and recognized boundaries.