Syria's strongman ready to woo Obama with both fists unclenched Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is being actively courted by the new US administration, the EU as well as fellow Arab leaders making ­Damascus the Middle Eastern ­city to visit. In a rare and ­exclusive ­interview he talks to the ­Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, in the Syrian capital. 

Ian Black in Damascus

Tuesday 17 February 2009 20.10 GMT

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, sits back on a smart leather sofa in his honey-coloured hilltop palace, and gestures expansively - his fists visibly unclenched - as he explains his country's indispensable role in the Middle East in the hopeful era of Barack Obama.

 Assad is a busy man. Hours before the Guardian called, he had seen a senior EU commissioner and the secretary general of the Arab League. Later this week his visitors will be Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate foreign ­relations committee and Howard Berman, a senior Congressman – reflecting the intensifying relationship between old adversaries who seem anxious to make a fresh start.

 In recent months Damascus has become the Middle Eastern capital to visit: Nicolas Sarkozy, with ­characteristic panache, blazed the way for France and Europe; David Miliband and other EU foreign ministers followed. Turkey is also playing a key role. 

As the world waits for the Obama administration's first practical steps, expectations of change are high, though tempered by the Gaza war and the result of the Israeli general election, likely to result in a rightwing government under the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu.

 Assad volunteers he never had high hopes of change in Israel – and certainly not of Netanyahu, who has pledged never to return the Golan Heights to Syria - but puts his faith in a new American role.


"We have the impression that this administration will be different," he says "and we have seen the signals. But we have to wait for the reality and the results." He hopes "in principle" to meet Obama, "but it depends on what we discuss. I will be very happy to ­discuss peace."

 He worries though, about the impact of "other lobbies and other players".

 Relaxed and thoughtful in a dark ­business suit, Assad seems keen to send out positive messages and to underline his view, inherited from his father Hafez, that Syria is indispensable. "If you want comprehensive peace in the Middle East you can't achieve it without Syria," he says. "We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace you cannot advance without us."

 Assad's relief that the Bush era is over is palpable. Though never part of the former US president's "axis of evil", Syria has been out in the cold since 2003: its opposition to the war in Iraq, accusations that it let foreign fighters cross its border, its presence in Lebanon and support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas made it the bad boy of the region as far as Washington and its allies were concerned. American ­sanctions under the Syria accountability act remain in force.

 "Bush failed in everything," says the president. "They [the Bush administ­ration] worked hard to achieve regime change. But it didn't work. It didn't work because I am not an American puppet and have good relations with my people." 

But Assad sees America's role as ­crucial if progress is to be made in the quest for peace in the region. ­Washington must be the "main arbiter", he says, but the time has come for an approach based on the principle of land for peace, enunciated in UN resolutions dating back decades and embodied in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the only forum at which Israel faced all its Arab enemies. "Madrid is still viable," suggests Assad. "It is a good model." 

The Arab Peace Initiative, first unveiled in 2002 and re-endorsed in 2007, is not quite dead – as he ­pronounced dramatically at the height of the Gaza bloodshed last month, but rather "in a coma". Whatever the ­precise medical analogy, he agrees with a smile, it was Israel that rejected this ­unprecedented collective Arab offer of peace in return for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. 

Signs are that after the disarray of the Gaza crisis, with the western-backed Arab camp of Egypt and Saudi Arabia confronting Syria, Qatar and non-Arab Iran – there is a fresh urgency to inter-Arab coordination and reconciliation. 

Apart from the Arab League's Amr Musa, another important visitor to Damascus this week was Prince Muqrin, the Saudi intelligence chief – a move seen as the harbinger of a real thaw between Damascus and Riyadh. 

Next month's Arab summit in the Qatar's capital Doha could be the opportunity for a collective Arab response to recent events: a key issue, says Assad, is to restore Palestinian unity after the debilitating split between the PLO in the West Bank and the Islamists of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas is a sensitive issue in Syria. Its exiled leader, Khaled Meshal - once the target of a Mossad hit team - is based in Damascus and enjoys the protection of the authorities. But Assad is quick to defend its right of resistance to Israel – widely supported by ordinary citizens - and to minimise his own influence over the Palestinian movement. 

Intriguingly, he says, in one of ­several thoughtful asides: "You can't only deal with good people. If they can spoil things or put obstacles in your way you have to deal with them. And I don't mean Syria and Iran. This is a principle. It applies anywhere in the world. Forget about labels and rhetoric."

 In the light of comments such as these, suggestions he may downgrade his relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah seem wide of the mark. But western diplomats say if Assad wants to see real change with the US he will face pressure not to allow Hezbollah to be supplied, via Syria, with longer-range rockets or anti-aircraft weapons that could change the strategic equation in Lebanon. 

Overall, his view is that violence is a symptom, not the cause of the Middle East's problems. 

Nor is Syria's strategic relationship with Iran, its ally since the 1979 ­revolution, up for grabs. Dialogue with Tehran should begin at once, he says, and westerners should not "waste their time" on imagining that June's ­presidential election will change ­anything fundamental.

 Assad is blunt in rejecting criticism of Syria's domestic freedom and of the imprisonment of dissidents such as Michel Kilo and Riyad Seif. "Our laws are tough and strict and whether they are right or wrong that is an issue for Syria," he says. 

"We don't allow anyone to make or internal issues a matter for relations. Europeans and Americans supported the occupation of Iraq. Talking about values has no credibility any more. And after what happened in Gaza they have no right (to criticize us) at all."

Assad urges US to rebuild diplomatic road to Damascus. In rare interview, Syrian leader calls on Obama to restore envoy and make good on promise of dialogue 

 Syria expects the US to send an ambassador to Damascus soon to make good on Barack Obama's offer to engage in dialogue with countries the Bush administration shunned, President Bashar al-Assad told the Guardian today. 

Assad used a rare newspaper interview to set out his hopes for a new relationship with the US now the Bush era is over – one he hopes will see Washington act as the "main arbiter" in the moribund Middle East peace process. "There is no substitute for the United States," Assad said. 

Referring to Obama's call for countries to "unclench their fists", Assad said he believed the new US president had been referring to Iran. "We never clenched our fist," he declared. "We still talked about peace even during the Israeli aggression in Gaza."

 A US decision on whether to send an ambassador back to Damascus is part of a review Obama ordered on taking office. The US is attracted to the idea of engaging with Syria, seeing potential for bringing Assad in from the cold, helping with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and loosening Syria's close ties with Iran. 

Later this week, Assad will see Senator John Kerry, the influential chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and the most senior American to visit Damascus in years. Kerry has been advocating the swift return of a US ambassador, which was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The killing was widely blamed on Syria, despite strenuous denials from Damascus.

 "An ambassador is important," Assad said. "Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them – Obama, Clinton and others – is positive." But he added: "We are still in the period of gestures and signals. There is nothing real yet." 

Such a rapprochement would require Syria to break its links with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both classified by Washington as terrorist groups, and to make a bigger effort to close its border to foreign fighters in transit to Iraq.

 There was no sign, however, that Assad is prepared to renounce or downgrade Syria's relations with either group – or, as the US would like to see, with Iran, Syria's strategic ally since 1979. 

Asked about Assad's comments on welcoming back a US ambassador, a state department official said: "Our policy toward Syria remains under review. Until that review is completed, I am not going to get into the details of those discussions." 

Underlining his hopes for a significant shift from Washington, the Syrian leader said he would welcome a visit to Damascus by General David Petraeus, the head of US central command, to discuss collaboration over Iraq and other issues. A planned visit by Petraeus was blocked by the Bush White House. 

"We would like to have dialogue with the US administration. We would like to see him [Petraeus] here in Syria," Assad said. 

Another cause of tension between the two countries is a building destroyed by Israeli forces in Syria last year that the US says was a secret nuclear plant. 

Assad was pessimistic about the prospects for brokering a lasting peace with the incoming Israeli administration, which is likely to be a centre-right coalition. "Betting on the Israeli government is a waste of time," he said. But peace talks, he predicted, would resume eventually. 

Israel's recent incursion into Gaza, warned Assad, had implications for the prospect of peace talks with Syria, but he was confident these would restart. "It will make it harder, but in the end we will return to talks." 

The US could not afford to ignore Syria, he said. "We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace, you can't advance without Syria." 

Syrian-US relations deteriorated sharply under the Bush administration, which accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq. Syria denied doing so, saying it was impossible to control the country's extensive desert border with Iraq. 

Assad also urged the US and Europe to engage with Iran and not to pin false hopes for change on this summer's presidential elections. "This is an Iranian issue," he said. "In Iran there is unity about the main national issues. Forget about the rhetoric.

 "I would say to Obama and the Europeans: 'Don't waste your time on this. Go and make dialogue.' The only way is to go for direct engagement." 

Assad, who is also mending fences with Saudi Arabia, a longtime rival, said he backed a return to the format of the Madrid peace conference of 1991, when all Arab states agreed to negotiate a comprehensive peace with Israel. Yasser Arafat's launch of the Oslo process with Israel had been a mistake, he believed. 

The Syrian leader made it clear he would not be pressured into making gestures. The US and Britain would like him to send an ambassador to Beirut after last year's historic establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon. But he warned: "We will not send an ambassador to Lebanon because Britain, France and the US want us to. This is a sovereign issue. We are not doing it for Europe or for anyone else." 

Assad said he was unconcerned by the opening on 1 March of the UN tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination, which some observers feel was driven by a US political agenda and could become a significant barrier to the accelerating rapprochement with the west. Any request for the handover of Syrians to the tribunal would require Syria's agreement, he said.

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