US Secretary of State Warren Christopher left Damascus on 18 May at the end of an intensive period of diplomacy aimed at bringing Israel and Syria closer to a peace deal.

Syrian President Asad’s spokesman, Jubran Kourieh, said after the final round of talks with Christopher that differences between the two sides were still substantial. However, during the US official’s visit to the region, Damascus newspapers offered hints that Syria is softening its position. In particular, editorials said Syria was ready to discuss the concept of a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The peace talks have revolved around Syria’s demand for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, in a reasonable time-frame, and Israel’s demand for an early move to normalising relations.

No details of the proposals taken by Christopher between Asad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been released. However, both sides sought to emphasise during Christopher’s visit that the negotiations are still at an early stage.

The US commitment to achieving a breakthrough in the Syrian/Israeli talks was underlined by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake in a 17 May address to a Washington symposium. He said: ‘A Syrian-Israeli agreement…would put an end to the conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Jordan and Lebanon would be able to resolve their differences with Israel in short order.’

Lake said full normalisation of relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states would quickly follow, resulting in what he described as ‘a bastion against the backlash states’. This was a reference to Iran and Iraq. ‘Imagine the strategic impact of such a peace on the wider Middle East. We will dramatically reinforce our efforts to contain the threats from Iran and Iraq.’

Lake’s speech echoed the statement by his Middle East policy chief Martin Indyk in May 1993 that the Clinton administration’s policy in the region would be based on dual containment of the perceived threats posed by Iran and Iraq.

Middle East analysts say Syria will be reluctant to fall in with any policy designed to isolate Iran, with which it has a long-standing alliance based on common interests in Lebanon and on the perceived need to counter the strategic weight of Turkey and Israel.