Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday that his country would eventually embark on direct peace talks with Israel, but they must be based on U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The comments by Bashar al-Assad reflect a softer stance of the Syrian leader, who only recently rebuked Israel by claiming the Jewish state is not genuine in its professed desire for peace with its Arab neighbors.
"Peace cannot be achieved through indirect negotiations alone. But if indirect talks succeed then direct negotiations will also, and peace will come naturally," Assad told a news conference with visiting Croatian President Stipe Mesic.
He compared the peace process to the construction of a building, and said Syria and Israel are "now laying the foundations" for peace through the Turkey-mediated indirect talks. "We should first lay solid foundations and then construct the building, and not vice versa," he said and added: "If the bases are successful, then direct negotiations will be successful."
In May, Syria and Israel -- technically still at war since the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 -- began Turkish-mediated indirect talks, though no breakthroughs were made, after direct negotiations halted eight years ago over the thorny Golan Heights issue.
But indirect talks have been on hold since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first announced in July he would step down over corruption allegations.
Olmert was due in Ankara on Monday to meet Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the indirect talks.
Olmert, who said on Thursday that "a peace accord with Syria was within the realm of possibility," will remain in office until a new government is formed following the Israeli election on February 10.
"It is essential to apply resolutions by the U.N. Security Council" on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Assad said on Monday.
In exchange for peace Syria is demanding the return of the entire Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in 1981 in a move unrecognized by the international community.
But Israel has baulked at this, since it would mean returning land right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee -- its main source of fresh water.
Assad also stressed the role of Europe in the peace process, saying: "Israel-Europe relations must be linked to Israel's acceptance of U.N. resolutions."
Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 call on Israel to withdraw from Arab territory it captured in the 1967 war.
Assad also said Europe should work to end the "unjust" Israeli blockade on Gaza and urged the incoming administration of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama to focus on the Middle East peace process.
"We also hope this administration has a clear vision to resolve the problem in Iraq, withdrawing its forces and creating a political process that ensures stability and Iraqi territorial integrity," he added.