Assad and Clinton fail to come to agreement on resuming talks

President Clinton and President Assad of Syria met in Geneva yesterday in what could be a last attempt to avoid war in southern Lebanon this summer.

What was advertised as an attempt to restart Syrian-Israeli peace talks - with Bill Clinton trying to accommodate HafezAssad's demand that a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights should be based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 - has now become a race to prevent a unilateral Israeli withdrawal under fire from Lebanon.

The two men held three hours of talks, through interpreters, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, with the Syrian leader patiently explaining he was not going to fall into the same "peace" trap as the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat. He will not make peace with Israel before guaranteeing the return of all of the occupied Golan, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Mr Arafat signed a peace settlement then failed to gain a majority of the occupied West Bank or a capital in Jerusalem.

As Mr Clinton returned to Washington last night, United States officials acknowledged the two leaders had failed to nail down an agreement that would allow the peace talks to resume.

The White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said that the talks between President Clinton and President Assad had been "very useful" but that the differences were significant and more work was needed to bridge them. The planned resumption of Israel-Syria talks in Washington this week had therefore been shelved and, according to Mr Lockhart, it was impossible to predict when they might resume. The US would, however, continue its attempts to mediate.

Mr Lockhart said that Mr Assad had "articulated his position clearly and forcefully" throughout the talks.

The US is sending Dennis Ross, the special Middle East envoy, to Israel today. Mr Ross has spent much of the past three years shuttling around the Middle East trying to establish common ground for a comprehensive Middle East settlement.

The Israelis and Americans know that Syria will never allow the former to withdraw from their hopeless war in southern Lebanon without the return of the Golan. With a Syrian peace still unsigned, Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon - supported by Syria - will continue to attack withdrawing Israeli occupation troops and Palestinian guerrillas might then be permitted to attack Israel across the international frontier - just as they did before 1982. Israel wants its soldiers out of their occupation zone by July.

Syria has already indicated that it would accept an international presence on the Golan after an Israeli retreat; sources in Beirut suggest that US and French troops could be permitted to man an early warning station on the heights.

And, if the Israelis do withdraw, the Syrians seem resigned to the opening of diplomatic missions in each other's countries. Mr Assad is even said to be prepared to compromise on the exact line of withdrawal, perhaps accepting continued Israeli control of the entire shore of Galilee while negotiating on joint water rights.

But he wants the whole of the Golan back before a full peace. Mr Assad's south Lebanon card is a powerful one. If Israel withdraws, only to find that its northern border is as vulnerable as it was more than two decades ago - and this after two Israeli invasions of Lebanon which cost the lives of at least 19,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians - then the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, will be seen to have failed in his attempt to cut his army's losses in Lebanon. The Lebanese, of course, would bear the cost of such a war.

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