16498Syrian Pressing for Israel Talks
- Dec 1, 2003Syrian Pressing for Israel Talks
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
Published: December 1, 2003
DAMASCUS, Syria, Nov. 30 - President Bashar al-Assad called Sunday for the United States to use its
influence to revive negotiations between his country and Israel, portraying their absence as a
gaping hole in the Bush administration's strategy for the Middle East.
Mr. Assad, in an interview at the small stone villa that serves as his private office in the hills
above Damascus, said the details of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for security
guarantees to Israel were 80 percent complete a few months before he succeeded his late father as
Syria's president. But the Bush administration, preoccupied by Iraq and the Palestinians, has shown
little interest in this strand of diplomacy, he said.
The president said neglecting the Syrian-Israel dispute was a prime example of the Bush
administration's preaching of visionary change to the Middle East without adopting practical
measures to attain it.
"You cannot just keep talking about this vision, you have to put a mechanism in order to achieve
that vision," he said.
Mr. Assad, who is 38 and has been in power just half a year longer than President Bush, ranged for
more than two hours across subjects from the turmoil in neighboring Iraq to the antiterror campaign
to his own hurdles in shaping domestic reform. He insisted that Damascus had already taken many of
the actions demanded by the Bush administration in terms of policing its borders and shuttering the
offices of militant Palestinian organizations.
Speaking in a mixture of Arabic and fluent English, Mr. Assad struck a generally conciliatory tone
toward the United States, emphasizing repeatedly that America's low public standing in the Arab
world could be overcome, and that Syria did not regard the United States as an adversary.
Despite bitter differences over Iraq and renewed efforts in Washington to punish Syria as a sponsor
of terrorism, Mr. Assad said his intelligence agencies continued to cooperate closely with the
C.I.A. in combating terrorism, and had provided information that allowed the United States to foil
imminent attacks on Americans in at least seven cases.
He declined to give specific details, saying that doing so might affect future cooperation.
Recent events in the Middle East, like the Israeli attack on what it described as a terrorist
training camp in Syria in October, have left the impression that Damascus has little leverage and a
shrinking regional role. But Mr. Assad suggested that Syria could be an important component to
solving both violent conflicts in the Middle East - in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.
"There can be no peace in the region without Syria," he said. "And Syria is important for the future
stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq."
In contrast to Syria's previous belligerent statements about the need for an immediate end to the
American occupation of Iraq, however, Mr. Assad softened his country's position. Asked how he felt
about having 100,000 American soldiers as his newest neighbors, he sounded almost resigned.
"The problem is not whether you have one American soldier or a million American soldiers on your
borders," he said. "And the problem is not whether they are going to stay one year or 10 years. The
problem is whether the U.S. is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region
instead of being an element of stability."
Mr. Assad acknowledged that it was up to the Iraqis to decide on the opportune moment for the United
States to withdraw, but said democracy could not be achieved at gunpoint. "I think the solution in
Iraq is to allow the Iraqis to write their own constitution and to elect their own government," he
In those remarks, the Syrian president joined the unusual chorus of Arab leaders calling for
measures in Iraq that often do not exist in their own countries. Although there is an official
political opposition here, it is largely toothless. The Baath Party and various police agencies run
the country, with rigorous controls against dissent, and much of the economy is state controlled.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]