Ex-U.S. secretary of state Baker calls for broad talks with Syria

By The Associated Press

Haaretz

Adar 11, 5767

The Middle East has grown less stable during the presidency of U.S. President George W. Bush, but dramatic improvements could be made by opening broad talks with Syria, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III said here Sunday.

"Once-pragmatic U.S. relations with Syria have gone downhill in recent years," said Baker, who is in Dubai to oversee the expansion of the Baker Botts LLP law offices. Baker is a senior partner at the Houston, Texas-based law firm.

But he said the outlines of a peace deal between Israel and Syria were clear and encouraged both sides to seize the opportunity.

"There's the deal. It's all spelled out, Baker said. This is all by way of saying we need to engage Syria."

Israel and Syria are officially at war, though there have been no open hostilities between them for decades. Syria has demanded the return of the Golan, which Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed, as the price for any peace deal.

Israel says it will not discuss a formal treaty with its northern neighbor as long as Damascus continues to back Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Washington brands both groups as terrorists, and several of Hamas' top leaders live in exile in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has the power to force Hamas to recognize Israel if Assad believed it was in Syria's interest, Baker said. "Hamas' officers are in Damascus. They can do this, he said."

Hamas' recognition of Israel would leave the Jewish state in a stronger position to make peace with the Palestinians, said Baker, who made similar recommendations as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that recommended changes in Bush's Iraq strategy, including
direct talks with Syria and Iran.

Baker noted with some satisfaction that U.S. officials were in talks in Iraq over the weekend with both Iran and Syria. He said he hoped those early contacts could be expanded. The Bush administration had long been reluctant to talk to Syria, citing its support for groups like Hamas.

Baker said a good opportunity to forge an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was lost after the 1993 Oslo accords. He said he was dismayed to see those accords, opposed by right-wing Israelis and hard-liners in the current Bush administration, fall to the wayside. Since then, the Mideast has descended deeper into chaos.

"Am I sorry to see Oslo hasn't ripened into a greater peace? Of course I am, Baker said. It's disappointing to me to see the degree to which the Middle East today is unstable, in a number of arenas. There was a great hope back in the early 1990s. Now, we have a lot of other sources
of instability that need to be addressed."

The oil-rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf were some of America's closest allies under former President George H.W. Bush, when Baker was secretary of state. Baker and the elder Bush brought Arab leaders together in a coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait in 1991.

But Gulf Arab relations with the United States have become strained since September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Baker, who turns 77 next month, said he was still hopeful for Israeli-Arab settlement in his lifetime.

Asked whether he backed the presence of two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups in the Mideast - for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion - Baker said he supported the Bush administration's stance on Iran. That includes being prepared to launch a military attack on
Iran's disputed nuclear facilities, he said.

"It's too bad we can't pursue the foreign policy ideals of Mother Theresa, but we just can't," Baker said. "It's a tough world out there."