ANNAPOLIS, MD—Despite years of diplomatic stalemate in the Mideast crisis, Syrian officials appeared eager to mend troubled Arab-Israeli relations this week by participating in a second round of U.S.-led peace talks, which feature representatives from every country in the region, as well as a complimentary continental breakfast in the hotel lobby.
"We are attending this conference in the interest of peace, and intend to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by this historic summit," Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said Tuesday. "I understand that a total of five different beverage options, including milk, tea, and assorted juices, will be available free of charge."
Now in its second day, the summit has reportedly been a success for the Syrians, who described themselves as "optimistic" and "full" and are already pointing to a number of positive developments, including fresh pastries and a new policy of unlimited coffee refills.
A number of observers applauded Syria's apparent commitment to peace after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who selected a raspberry Danish and small cup of vanilla yogurt sprinkled with granola from the ice-filled bin in the hotel reception area, laid out his country's goals for the five-day summit.
"This is a chance for us to get something truly worthwhile out of the arduous peace process," al-Assad said. "Now is the time to put aside petty concerns and take advantage of this incredible generosity. The continental breakfast is only available for a limited time each morning, so we must be focused and diligent about getting down to the lobby before hotel staff remove all the doughnuts at 10:30."
According to the State Department, the first day's discussions—centered around Palestinian statehood and security along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip—went relatively smoothly, though the Syrian delegation did not appear until 90 minutes after the scheduled 9 a.m. start. Upon their arrival, however, the Syrians introduced themselves to their international counterparts and, as a measure of goodwill, offered them croissants, small wedges of grapefruit, and toast with jelly packets.
"We are encouraged by the Syrians' willingness to help promote freedom in the region," U.S. spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We just hope they will be ready to start talks before 10:31 tomorrow morning."
The meetings were not without setbacks. Small arguments broke out sporadically throughout the day over the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and the Kuwaiti ambassador taking the last three cream cheese packets.
"We deserve unfettered access to the cream cheese," said the head of the Syrian parliament's foreign relations committee, Suleiman Haddad, addressing a group of delegates assembled near the milk and cream table. "This must not be taken away from us. It is unacceptable. What will we put on this bagel?"
Tensions were relieved by some Syrian representatives who took a more conciliatory tone, pointing out that it's nearly impossible to find good bagels in their native country at all, while expressing hope that a more equitable cream cheese–sharing arrangement could be arrived at the following morning.
In Tehran, meanwhile, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was not invited to the talks, was highly critical of the summit, claiming that the European-style breakfast was indicative of a pro-Israel bias.
"It is quite obvious that the Annapolis summit will offer little real substance to those in attendance," Ahmadinejad said. "The little single-serving boxes of cereal are not even sizable enough to constitute a real meal."
Nevertheless, many within the State Department said they were encouraged to witness a number of delegates working together to clean up a cup of spilled coffee. At one point, the Israeli prime minister even offered to give up extra napkins to Syria's president in order to stop the liquid from flowing over the side of the counter.
In comments made to the Syrian state newspaper, Syrian prime minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari said he was confident there was even more to achieve during the conference.
"I am pleased to report that there will be a variety of instant oatmeal flavors being offered in the near future," al-Otari said. "I am certainly looking forward to learning more about the apples and cinnamon, maple and brown sugar, and the plain oatmeal flavors."
While the United States organized an opening-night gala to welcome the participating ambassadors, the Syrians did not attend the event, claiming they had to go to bed early in order to get plenty of sleep for some "very important business" they had to attend to at 7 a.m. the following day.