Syria Floats Direct Talks With Israel

Syrian president raises possibility of direct talks with Israel. Syria says U.S. must be involved before direct talks can begin. Syria and Israel have been involved in indirect talks in Turkey for past few months. French President Nicolas Sarkozy currently visiting Syria.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (right) and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meet in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- Syria hopes a series of indirect talks with Israel will soon lead to direct negotiations, President Bashar al-Assad told CNN's Cal Perry Thursday in an exclusive interview.

Al-Assad said that possibility was discussed during a summit attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the leaders of Turkey and Qatar.

Word of the Syrian proposal came during a landmark visit to Damascus by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took part in a summit Thursday that also included the leaders of Turkey and Qatar.

"The dialogue today was about the peace," al-Assad told CNN's Cal Perry in an exclusive interview. "I could not say we achieved something but starting the dialogue is a positive issue."

Al-Assad told CNN: "We are talking about the future, the role of Europe and especially France in particular during the next phase which is the direct negotiations," he said.

Syria and Israel have been involved in indirect talks in Turkey for the past few months. There have been four rounds of talks so far, and Syria hopes to begin a fifth round early next week, according to a senior official close to the negotiations.

The Syrian government has put forward a six-point proposal outlining goals for furthering indirect talks with Israel, a senior Syrian government official. The Syrian government handed the proposal to Turkey to pass along to Israel, the senior official said.

Israeli officials did not immediately confirm whether they had received a copy of Syria's proposals, but they did say they were trying to set up another round of talks with Turkish mediation.

"We are still interested in the continuation of the talks with a genuine intention to reach an agreement," an Israeli official said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States wants to see Syria "play a more productive role in the region."

"I think it remains to be seen just how serious Syria is about engaging in peace discussions with Israel," Wood said. "If Syria is serious about it, about making peace with Israel, I think what is important is to see actions not words."

Al-Assad has consistently said the United States must be involved in the process before any direct talks can begin. He has also said there is no point in involving the U.S. before the presidential election in November.

The Bush administration hasn't "done anything, to be honest," he said. "Now it's too late. We have to wait for the next administration, after the American election, to see what we can do."

Al-Assad added that he would be happy to host whichever presidential candidate won the election but would not say if he thought Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama would be better for U.S.-Syrian relations.

Sarkozy is the highest-level French official to visit Syria since their good relations froze after the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, anti-Syrian Rafik Hariri.

A U.N.-appointed commission investigating Hariri's assassination has implicated top Syrian officials. Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri's murder.

Sarkozy said Wednesday the two countries were about to open a new page in their friendship, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported.

The French president said indirect talks between Syria and Israel were "excellent" for the two countries and for the region, and he expressed hope that they would lead to direct talks as soon as possible, SANA said.

The main issue in the Syria-Israel negotiations is the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war.

The senior official close to the negotiations said one prospect being discussed is a land-buyback plan to allow Syria to purchase the Golan Heights over a period of 99 years.

CNN's Cal Perry and Jordana Miller contributed to this report.


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