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Syria Leader Eyes Direct Talks With Israel

CBS News' George Baghdadi is based in Damascus

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said on Monday peace with Israel will only be attainable through direct negotiations and that the previous indirect talks were aimed at laying the "solid foundations" for a lasting settlement between the two countries.

But he underlined – after a set of talks he had with Croatian President Stipe Mesic – that any direct peace negotiations with Israel must be based on U.N. Security Council resolutions.

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
"It is natural that we move in a later stage to direct negotiations. Peace cannot be achieved through indirect talks alone," Assad told reporters at a press conference with Mesic, who arrived in Damascus Sunday evening on an official visit at the invitation from his Syrian counterpart.

"I compared the peace process to my friend the president of Croatia to the construction of a building – we first build the solid foundations and then we build the building, not the vise versa," he said.

"What we are doing now in the indirect talks is that we are laying the foundation of this huge building. If this foundation, or ground, was a success, then the indirect negotiations will be a successful stage and eventually peace will be maintained," he said.

Assad, whose country has held four indirect rounds of talks with Israel in Turkey this year, said he hoped the new administration of U.S. President-elect Barak Obama would help by actively pursuing peace in the Middle East.

Indirect talks between Syria and Israel have focused on the disposition of the fertile Golan Heights. Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it more than a decade later -- a move unanimously rejected as null by the U.N. Security Council.

The two countries held almost 10 years of direct talks under U.S. supervision that collapsed in 2000 over the scope of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

But the two countries resumed indirect talks this year following Turkish mediation. Assad's comments coincided with a visit to Ankara by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The Syrian president suggested Europe could play a larger role in the Middle East peace process and noted its relations with Israel on different levels must be linked to its acceptance of U.N. resolutions.

"Today's talks dealt as well with the tragic situation of the Palestinian people in Gaza which is a result of the Israeli unjust siege and the policy of mass punishment," he added, calling on Europe to "take a stance in favor of humanity through working on lifting the unfair [siege] imposed on the unarmed Palestinians in Gaza."

The Croatian president, who will spend Christmas with the 95 Croatian soldiers serving since July in the 1,000-strong U.N. mission in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, suggested his visit was in the "right direction" that would "open wide visions" of mutual cooperation between the two countries.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights was established in May 1974 to supervise the disengagement of Syrian and Israeli forces following the 1973 war.

Trade exchanges are active between Syria and Croatia, which have signed a convention on prevention of double taxation, as Syria exports to Croatia foodstuffs, vegetables, cotton materials and imports from it chemical materials, oil and gas equipment, and sea products.

Croatia was elected as non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for 2008 and 2009.

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