WASHINGTON, April 28 (UPI) -- When Yasser Arafat first addressed the U.N. General Assembly in November 1974, he told the world body he came bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. "Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand," stated the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at that time still considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.
Today, the odds have increased. The gun has been replaced by nuclear warheads.
Despite a mysterious air raid by the Israeli air force last Sept. 6 on what it said was a nuclear processing facility in the Syrian desert, Damascus appears to be extending an olive branch to Israel, while suspected to be pursuing plans to acquire nuclear weapons.
However, the Bush administration does not seem to believe Syria is earnest in its motives and accuses the government of President Bashar Assad of continuing to support terrorism and of gross interference in internal Lebanese affairs. Furthermore, Washington fears that camouflaged behind those olive branches being extended by Damascus are the regime's real intentions, among them failed efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Syria's ambassador to the United States denied all accusations lobbed by Washington at Damascus, the latest being that Syria was looking to North Korean technical know-how to become the first nuclear-armed Arab country. Saddam Hussein had attempted as far back as the mid-1970s to equip Iraq with a nuclear arsenal, but his dream was shattered when Israeli warplanes destroyed the Osirak facility in 1981.
The Syrian envoy to Washington said his country was well aware of what happens to a country that attempts to acquire nuclear technology. Imad Mustapha said Syria had no intentions of acquiring nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes.
"We believe in a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict," said the Syrian envoy. But the Bush administration remains adamant in refusing to deal with Syria.
The CIA, however, believes Syria was building a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor that was nearing operational capability by the end of the third quarter of 2007. It is believed the reactor would have been able to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
U.S. intelligence experts say the facility bombed by Israel closely resembles the North Korean models. Additionally, they said the remoteness of the site chosen by the Syrians leads them to believe there was a need for great secrecy.
Mustapha said the site was ill-equipped to function as a modern plutonium processing plant because of lack of water and electricity available in the immediate vicinity. But a CIA videotape indicates the existence of a water pipe leading from the site to a nearby concealed water reservoir. Also, the location of the site is a few miles from the Euphrates River.
Furthermore, the CIA attests that senior officials from North Korea's nuclear program made frequent trips to Syria in 2007 and that North Korean experts helped with the damage assessment after the Israeli attack. The U.S. questions why Syria was so quick to bulldoze the building and dispose of any equipment or clues that might have left behind traces of what the CIA called "incriminating equipment."
"We understand this is a two-tier world," said the Syrian ambassador.
Mustapha in turn accused the Bush administration of wanting to portray the Middle East as a truly dangerous area, thereby justifying its strong-arm policy in the region while at the same time lending legitimacy to its domestic policies.
"I have to be honest with you. No engagement will be possible with this administration," he said.
If he was harsh on the Bush administration, he seemed far more lenient toward Israel, declaring his country's willingness to talk peace with its longtime enemy with whom it has fought several wars.
Syria, according Mustapha, believes in the existence of "serious prospects for peace in our region." Indeed, the Syrians have made several overtures towards Washington and Jerusalem of their willingness to start peace negotiations, but the Bush administration has systematically and categorically refused to engage Assad's regime in negotiations.
Peace, he said, can become a reality that would happen when Israel will come to realize that it cannot continue to depend on sheer military superiority to "impose occupation on Syria, the Palestinians and the Lebanese."
He appeared confident that the day would come when Israel reaches what he described as a "tipping point," when Israelis will realize they "cannot live outside international law."
There is a growing movement in Israel advocating for peace with Syria, said Mustapha. Hopefully that day will come before nuclear weapons are introduced into the Middle East conflict.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)