Syria gets peace talks invite, no Golan mention

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DAMASCUS, Nov 22 (Reuters) Syria received an official invitation on Wednesday to next week's Middle East peace conference in the United States, diplomats said, but there was no immediate indication whether it would attend.

Syria has said it will only take part if the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from it in 1967, is on the agenda. The invitation called for comprehensive Middle East peace but did not mention the Golan Heights by name, the diplomats said.

Charge d'Affaires Michael Corbin, the highest ranking US diplomat stationed in Damascus, delivered the invitation letter to the foreign ministry's chief of protocol, the diplomats in the Syrian capital told Reuters.

''The Syrians are getting what they want even if the Golan is not explicitly mentioned. The letter talks about United Nations resolutions and the Arab peace initiative, which Syria supports'' one of the diplomats said.

''There will even be a session in the conference on comprehensive Middle East peace. Syria will be seen as deliberately trying to spoil Annapolis if it does not show up,'' the diplomat said.

Syria, like Saudi Arabia, has no relations with Israel and neither Arab state has yet committed to going to the conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Arab peace initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land, including the Golan Heights. Peace talks between Syria and Israel, centred on normal ties in return for the Golan, collapsed in 2000.

After occupying the Golan, a fertile plateau overlooking Damascus, Israel went on to annex the territory in 1981, but the United Nations Security Council declared the move null.

Syria is under pressure from Russia and pro-US Arab governments to attend the conference. Even Israel said it was in favour of Syria taking part and Jordan's King Abdullah paid a rare visit to Damascus this week to convince President Bashar al-Assad to send a delegation.

Arab foreign ministers, including veteran Syrian envoy Walid al-Moualem, will meet in Cairo today to decide on a strategy to adopt at Annapolis. Arab diplomats still expect Syria to make a late decision to attend.

''Annapolis will not achieve its goals without Syria,'' Syrian journalist Ziad Haidar wrote in al-Watan, Syria's only privately owned daily. ''Syria is being asked to throw its weight around.

The attempts to isolate it have backfired.'' REUTERS TB BST0506

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