DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria does not want to put pressure on Hamas in its conflict with Israel, diplomats said on Wednesday, although the Israeli assault on Gaza has harmed prospects for a Syrian-Israeli peace deal.
“Everyone wants this to end. The question is, how? Egypt and Saudi Arabia want Hamas to stop firing rockets, but given the ferocity of the Israeli response Syria will not be party to any solution that punishes Hamas,” one of the diplomats said in the Syrian capital.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad set out his viewpoint at talks this week with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a staunchly pro-Israeli republican law maker who regularly visits Damascus, where Hamas’s exiled leaders are based.
A source familiar with the meeting said Assad told Specter Israel’s offensive jeopardized the chances of peace in the long run. The way to deal with Hamas, Assad told Specter, was to stop asking Syria to pressure the group and push for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the source said.
The Israeli assault, which has killed almost 400 people in Hams-ruled Gaza, has further divided Arab governments on how to deal with the Palestinian Islamist movement, which is also backed by Iran.
Several Western-backed Arab governments, including Egypt, say Hamas shares the blame for the attacks.
Syria described the offensive as a “massacre” and allowed protests in front of the Egyptian embassy in Damascus against Cairo’s cooperation with the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
Another European diplomat said championing Arab resistance served Syria well. “The Syrians see Arab governments like Egypt as getting undermined as a result of this, not them,” the diplomat said.
Syria has said the Israeli attacks have ruled out a resumption of indirect talks with Israel any time soon, although Specter said after meeting Assad that the Syrian president was still interested in pursuing peace with Israel.
Israel and Syria held four indirect rounds of peace talks in Turkey this year, which were suspended following the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September.
Specter said Assad wanted to be “helpful” in solving the crisis in Gaza but he did not give details of the meeting.
“I was pleased to see how deeply involved president Assad is and how much interested he is in a peace treaty. He said the talks would have to be suspended because of what happened in Gaza but expressed the hope that they could be resumed and that there could be a peace treaty,” Specter said.
Syria first cultivated relations with Hamas during the rule of Bashar’s late father, President Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s, while he was crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Little is known about the dynamics of the relationship or whether Syria supported Hamas’s recent moves not to extend a truce with Israel and step up rocket attacks on the Jewish state from Gaza.
Syrian officials have dismissed Israeli demands to cut support for Hamas and Lebanon’s Shi’ite movement Hezbollah and distance itself from Iran as a pre-requisite for peace.
But they say Syria’s external posture could change if a deal with Israel was achieved.
Bashar decided this year to resume peace talks with Israel, which collapsed in 2000, shortly before his father’s death.
The talks have focused on the Golan Heights. Israel captured the fertile plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it more than a decade later — a move unanimously rejected as null by the United Nations Security Council.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher