Syrian statements of willingness to make peace with Israel, including in a recent WND exclusive interview, drew a skeptical response yesterday from the Bush adminstration.

Sources tell WND Syrian President Bashar Assad is feeling increasingly isolated after fellow Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown and recent U.S. sanctions were imposed. He has reportedly instructed his U.S. representatives to tell reporters Syria is willing to enter peace talks with Israel.

Among recent overtures by Syria was a WND interview with Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Fayssal Mekdad in which he said his country is willing to discuss peace with Israel.

“The ball is in the Israeli court,” Mekdad told WND. “We think once there is a willingness on the part of the Israeli government to establish a just and comprehensive peace in the region, we shall solve all problems.”

“The only lingering issue is the fact that Israel has refused to withdraw from our land. … If Israel withdraws, then a new page will be opened in the Middle East,” Mekdad said.

Also, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said the overwhelming majority of Syrians and Israelis want to have a peace accord.

“The moment you sign a peace treaty it should mean the end of the war, the exchange of diplomatic relations, opening of borders, everything,” said Moustapha.

But the Bush administration was skeptical.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We would certainly welcome any real willingness to move forward on peace with Israel and peace in the region.”

But, he said, “it is hard to reconcile those kind of statements with support for violent groups that are trying to kill the dreams of the Palestinians and undermine any hopes for peace.”

Specifically, Boucher continued, “we have been very concerned about Syrian material and other support, financial and otherwise, for groups that engage in terrorism, particularly Hezbollah.”

Syria is interested in taking control of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it lost to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Negotiations hosted by President Clinton in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 2000 failed to produce an accord.

The U.S. last month imposed heavy sanctions on Syria, banning all U.S. exports to the Arab country except food and medicine and forbidding direct flights between Syria and the United States.

The Syria Accountability Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in response to allegations Damascus is supporting terror groups, failing to stop anti-U.S. fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syria, developing chemical and biological weapons, and occupying Lebanon.

During periods of extreme discord with the White House, Arab countries have often claimed to be interested in peace with Israel, only to rescind their overtures later.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 19 Saudis hijacked airplanes and drove them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Crown Prince Abdullah told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times about a new “peace proposal” for Israel. The proposal, which Abdullah never detailed, was largely thought to be a public relations stunt to divert attention from the Kingdom’s support of terrorist groups and its failure to cooperate with the war on terror.

Boucher said “we want to see something from Syria other than periodic statements.”

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