(Adds Rice quotes, paragraphs 6-9)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) - The United States voiced tepid support on Wednesday for indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, a stance that analysts said reflected U.S. doubts about the chances of success.
U.S. officials said they would welcome a peace agreement between the two countries, which have been technically at war since Israel declared independence 60 years ago. But they made clear their focus would be on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Israel and Syria said they had launched indirect peace talks mediated by Turkish officials in Istanbul, the first confirmation of negotiations between the longtime enemies in eight years after a U.S.-backed effort collapsed in 2000.
The White House said it had no objections to the initiative — in which U.S. officials are not involved but have been kept informed — and stressed its concerns about Syria’s suspected support for terrorism abroad and its repression at home.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said he hopes to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach some form of peace agreement by the end of the year despite deep skepticism among Israelis, Palestinians and independent analysts that this is possible.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to tamp down the view the United States was not enthusiastic about the Israeli-Syrian talks but she stressed she viewed talks with the Palestinians as “the most mature track.”
“We would welcome any steps that might lead to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” Rice said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
“We are going to work very hard on the Palestinian-Israeli front. We hope for the best on the Israeli-Syrian side and we do believe that there is work to be done vis-a-vis the outstanding issues with Lebanon, as well,” she added.
In particular, she said Syria should demarcate its border with Lebanon and find a way to resolve the dispute over the Shebaa Farms territory, a small area in the foothills of the Golan Heights claimed by Lebanon but held by Israel.
David Welch, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, said Washington would welcome an Israeli-Syrian peace deal but suggested that would be very hard to achieve.
Alluding to the U.S. view that Syria supports terrorism, allows insurgents to enter Iraq and interferes in Lebanon, Welch said Washington has had “concerns about Syrian behavior in any number of dimensions that suggested to us it would be rather more difficult to pursue that track.”
“That Israel has been able to open some sort of indirect conversation about these matters with the Syrian government with the good offices of Turkey is a good thing,” he told reporters. “We hope it prospers but where we are making the major investment right now is on the Palestinian track.”
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton brought top Israeli and Syrian officials together in early 2000 in a failed effort to bring about a peace deal.
Asked if the United States planned to play a direct role in the new Israel-Syrian effort, Welch said, “We haven’t been asked ... if we’re asked, we’ll consider it.”
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the Bush administration had long been skeptical about the chances of an Israeli-Syrian peace pact.
“My understanding is they say to the Israelis: ‘We don’t think this can go anywhere but, if you want to pursue it, go knock yourselves out,’” Alterman said.
Bruce Riedel, who was one of the U.S. negotiators at the last Syrian-Israeli talks in 2000, said the Turkish effort underlined the limits of current U.S. influence.
“What we see going on is the increasing irrelevance of the Bush administration to what happens in the region,” said Riedel, now with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
The Golan Heights form a strategic plateau between Israel and Syria. Israel captured it in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.
A senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified said the United States would step in if it appeared the Israeli and Syrian talks made progress.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time. If this one shows progress, we would have no objection to that. We would even look at how we could encourage it,” said the official.
“But objectively, I mean, we just didn’t see it as the place that we could get the highest early return on our investment.” (Editing by Peter Cooney)