DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Syria's president has expressed willingness to hold direct peace talks with Israel in the future under U.S. sponsorship, laying out his vision of how talks could progress.
President Bashar al-Assad said that the preliminary stages of talks would be conducted indirectly - both countries recently confirmed they were holding talks through Turkish mediators - and that those stages did not 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 yesterday. Assad is on a trip to Gulf states.
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."
Assad previously had said that direct talks with Israel probably would not begin until a new U.S. administration took office. His latest comments further clarified the role he hoped the United States would play.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that neither country had asked Washington to play a role in the talks. He indicated that the United States wanted to focus on the Palestinian-Israeli talks that the Bush administration helped relaunch last year.
In Washington last night, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he hoped renewed contacts with Syria would lead to peace talks that could transform the Middle East.
Olmert said he still expected to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians this year. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier yesterday that the peace effort President Bush began must carry over to his successor.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a closed parliamentary meeting Monday that he believed Syria wanted peace to improve relations with the United States. An aide who attended the hearing confirmed Barak's comments, speaking on condition of anonymity because the session was closed.
An Israeli diplomatic official said the government had no objection to U.S. involvement but believed it would be premature at this stage, since Israel and Syria have not even had a face-to-face meeting. The diplomat declined to be identified, citing the fragile state of negotiations.
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 deal.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 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.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose efforts to reach 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.
Assad also again denied that his country had a secret nuclear program. In September, Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian site that the United States alleged was a plutonium-producing reactor being built secretly with help from North Korea.
"The site they attacked wasn't a nuclear site," he said.
On Monday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Syria would allow the entry of U.N. inspectors to probe allegations that a nuclear reactor was being built at the site. Syria has told fellow Arab countries it will not let the probe extend beyond the site bombed by Israel, despite agency interest in three other suspect locations, diplomats said.