Syria welcomes Obama's overtures

DAMASCUS--Syrian President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama's government has taken a positive step toward achieving a Middle East breakthrough. 

In an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Assad said he welcomed Obama's overtures for dialogue with the Muslim world as a sharp break from his predecessor. 

Assad said the United States, with its large influence over Israel, has an important role in the region.

"When you have the direct negotiations that should lead to the signing of the (Syria-Israel peace) treaty, this is where you need the arbiter," Assad said in his first interview with a Japanese media organization since Obama took office in January.

Assad also said Obama's announcement that combat duty for U.S. troops in Iraq will end by August 2010 was "essential to have a stable Iraq."

He criticized the George W. Bush administration's attempts to isolate and contain Syria. Assad said fighting by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan led to confusion in the Middle East because "the previous administration only talked with countries in the region, including Syria, about their interests, regardless of our interests."

Assad said visits to Syria by top U.S. government officials, including Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were encouraging.

"You start the dialogue and then through the dialogue you see if you have to change or the other one has to change. ... We can continue the dialogue in order to maybe someday have common ground," Assad said.

Assad said Syria would try to persuade Hamas and Hezbollah to enter discussions for a comprehensive peace.

He said to achieve peace, one needs "to have relations with every influential party in every conflict if you want to solve it."

As an example of Syria's influence over Hamas, Assad said Damascus urged Hamas to work with Fatah to form a unified Palestinian government that could then enter peace negotiations with Israel.


Assad defended Iran's right to develop nuclear reactors.

"As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, (Iran) has the right to have peaceful reactors," Assad said.

When asked whether Syria might serve as a go-between for the United States and Iran, Assad said, "We won't say no, providing that we have a clear framework and realistic objectives to work through in order to succeed."

Assad criticized as a "ploy" the U.S. accusation that a facility in eastern Syria was a nuclear plant developed with the support of North Korea. The accusation was made after Israel bombed the facility in September 2007. 

"Why did (the United States) say they have evidence eight months after the date of the bombing?" Assad asked. He added that if the site had been a nuclear reactor, there would have been "radiation and casualties. We didn't have that." 

Asked about Japan's role in the Middle East, Assad said, "Japan has a very vital role in development in Syria. But we would like to see more of a Japanese role in the peace issue." 



"We need the United States to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations (with Israel)," 

He also said that "possible progress of such talks would depend on the next Israeli administration."

"It is not us who have changed. It is the Americans who have changed", Assad said adding that "the administration of Bush did not do that, and it only cared about the benefit of his own country." 

"I will work to involve Hizbullah and Hamas in the negotiations to achieve peace in the region," 

"Changes do not happen overnight," Assad was quoted saying. "We must first start dialogue to clarify the shared interest, which is to achieve peace.

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