Syria plays down peace chance after Israel raid

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DAMASCUS, Sept 24 (Reuters) An Israeli raid on Syria has all but finished off chances for resuming peace talks between the two foes, Syrian officials said today.

In the first clear reaction to the Sept 6. Israeli air strike, officials told Reuters Syria was wary of retaliating against Israel given the military superiority of the Jewish state and because of lack of Arab support.

Another reason was Damascus's changing relationship with Russia, an ally during the Communist era.

The officials were dismissive about any new peace talks, which collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights, a 1,750 square km plateau which the Jewish state captured from Syria in 1967.

''After this raid, you can forget about peace. It is no secret that our forces have been on alert for some time, but Syria will not be the first to start a war,'' said one of the Syrian officials, who asked not to be named.

''Arab states have not exactly rallied in our support. As for peace, the international picture could start changing late next year with a new administration in Washington,'' another official said.

Even Moscow, a strong backer of Syria in the days of the Soviet Union, did not directly condemn the Israeli action, in which Syria says planes bombed an empty area after air defence systems confronted them. Israel has not disclosed the target.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov advised Syrian officials not to go after Israel at the United Nations beyond a protest letter, according to a diplomat familiar with Sultanov's recent meetings in Damascus.

During last year's war between Hezbollah and Israel, Russia told Damascus not to use Russian missiles to target Israel if the war extended to involve Syria.

Diplomats say at least four Israeli warplanes crossed deep into Syria in this month's operation. They suggest the intended target may have involved missiles supplied by North Korea but played down reports of a nuclear link.

Days after the raid, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dropped Israel's insistence that Syria abandon support for the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas before any peace talks could start.

Western diplomats in Damascus said Syrian officials told them Syria did not take Olmert's statements seriously.

''Peace with Israel is not a priority for Syria when it has Lebanon and the Hariri investigation to deal with,'' one said.

The diplomat was referring to upcoming Lebanese presidential elections and a United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri.

The probe implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the killing.

Another diplomat said the Israeli raid has made it difficult for Syria to use channels it had previously used to relay peace messages to Israel, especially Turkey.

''Syria would appear very weak if it approaches Israel anytime soon. On the other hand Syria knows that any war with Israel would set it back decades,'' he said.


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