Little has changed in Quneitra, former capital of the Syrian Golan Heights, since Israeli forces withdrew behind the barbed wire and minefields of the nearby ceasefire line in 1974. A mosque crumbles slowly into the grass, a Greek Orthodox church visited by Pope John Paul II during his 2001 tour of the Holy Land lies abandoned. Here a ruined school, there a gutted hospital or flattened home.

Syria has made no attempt to rebuild. Until Israel vacates the two-thirds of the Golan Heights it first seized in 1967 and annexed in 1981, as Syria insists it must, it prefers symbolism to salvage. “This is a human tragedy,” said Mohammad Ali, a senior official in Syria’s Golan governorate. “There are over 400,000 Syrians from the Golan who live as expellees.

Compared with other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israel-Syria “track” is in theory relatively straightforward. President Bashar Al-Assad wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in return for ending the state of war. Implicit in such a deal is Syrian recognition of Israel, mutual security guarantees and normalisation of relations.

Talks mediated by Turkey last year raised hopes of a deal. But Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza caused Syria to pull out, while Turkey, shedding its neutral pose, condemned Israeli actions. The rift with Ankara remains unrepaired.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s willingness to engage with Syria also raised expectations of another “Damascus spring”. This year he moved to ease sanctions, promised to send a U.S. ambassador back to Damascus and dispatched his West Asia envoy, George Mitchell, for talks. But Syrian officials have complained in recent weeks that Mr. Obama’s words are not matched by actions — and that a rare opportunity may be missed.Syria’s overall positive response to French and EU attempts to improve ties is one of several factors encouraging a belief that Mr. Assad’s strategic calculations may be shifting. A recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia has been matched by the signing of co-operation agreements with Turkey, a country Syria almost went to war with a decade ago.

Relations with Riyadh plummeted after Syria was accused of ordering the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi Arabia ally, Rafiq Al-Hariri. But like the Americans, the Saudi Arabians see a resurgent Iran, not Israel, as the primary regional threat. By repairing ties, they hope to break, or at least temper, Syria’s links with Tehran.

Mr. Mitchell said again this week that the U.S. wanted to advance the Syrian track. But concerns about Syria’s role in Iraq, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Palestinian rejectionist groups, its human rights record, suspicious nuclear activities and alliance with Iran have increased domestic pressure on Mr. Obama to be cautious in reaching out to Syria, even though he might achieve a regional peace breakthrough.

Mr. Obama’s Syrian overtures have had scant encouragement from Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. “The Golan will never be divided again, the Golan will never fall again, the Golan will remain in our hands,” he said in February. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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