‘India can bring balance to Middle East peace process’ 

Siddharth Varadarajan 

Bashar al-Assad: India and China should play a role with other countries in making a balance that we have missed for almost 20 years.

Bashar al-Assad … "We would like to attract Indian investment based on the stability in Syria

 At 42, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is the youngest head of state in West Asia and also one of its most influential. On the eve of his visit to India, he spoke exclusively to The Hindu about Syria’s relations with Israel and Lebanon, U.S. allegations about a clandestine nuclear programme and his hopes of India playing a more important role in bringing peace to the region. 

Your government recently confirmed that there have been indirect talks between Syria and Israel through Turkey. Now, Israel is occupying the Golan Heights – which is Syrian territory -- and obviously Syria is asking to get its territory back. But what can Syria give to Israel in return? 

First of all, as you said, Syrian land is occupied by Israel so they have to give us back our land. We don't have something to give but we have something to achieve together, which is peace. It is not something we have. So, if both sides achieve a certain treaty, including giving back the Golan Heights, this means achieving peace. The other thing besides the land is discussing normal relations, water, security arrangements and all these details that are related to the concept of peace. As I said, it is something we achieve together, but Israel has the land and should give it back.

 But it is said that Israel wants Syria to abandon its friends in the region – friends like Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran. What is the Syrian response? 

Nobody asked us to do this. The Israelis have been talking about negotiations without pre-conditions. So, they cannot ask for conditions for the negotiations, and they have not asked either. This is first. Second, Hamas is related to the Palestinian Track and we are talking about the Syrian track; we are not responsible for that track. Hizbollah is part of the Lebanese track and we are not in Lebanon today. So, we are only talking about the Syrian track. This is our position. 

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KUWAIT, June 4 - Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad hailed on Wednesday the key role played by Kuwait and its political leaders in cementing the inter-Arab relations. 

Concluding a two-day visit to Kuwait, Al-Assad, the current president of the Arab summit, said in statements to the press he wants to visit all Arab countries to iron out all differences among them "but the possibility hinges on the desire of each country." "When a time schedule for the visits is developed in line with engagements of every Arab leader the visits will take place," he pointed out.

 "Kuwait makes concerted efforts with Syria to improve the inter-Arab relations but can not, of course, take part in the arrangement of the schedule of the visits," he made clear.

 Regarding the investment atmosphere in Syria, Al-Assad said his government offered great incentives to investors and developed large number of investment-friendly legislations. "Syria is trying to overcome the challenges in the investment sector which was neglected for more than 50 years. "It started to improve the financial, economic and administrative regulations to encourage investments," he underscored. 

During his visits to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Al-Assad met with a number of major Kuwaiti, UAE and Syrian investors and business people. "I did not seek to persuade them of the promising investments in Syria as they are aware of the ins and outs of the investment atmosphere there. "I, rather sought to get acquainted with their proposals and suggestions on ways to improve the administrative aspect of investment and remove the red tape obstacles," he made clear. 

"The Syrian government can not replace private investors, so it has to listen to the suggestions and demands of investors in order to promote joint enterprises between Syrian and Gulf private sector investors. "The Gulf, especially the Kuwaiti, investments in Syria are growing steady, the president asserted. 

Dealing with the Kuwaiti-Syrian security cooperation against the back drop of reports on the infiltration of three Kuwait youths to Iraqi via Syrian borders, Al-Assad said any Arab citizen could enter Syria without need to get a permit or a visa. "Syria, however, realizes the importance of security cooperation with other Arab countries to combat terrorism and intercept terrorists. In case of failure to identify a person as terrorist, how could the Syrian authorities bar them from entering the county," he wondered. "If we are sure that someone is a terrorist, we apprehend them and extradite them to their respective countries," he added. 

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ABU DHABI, JUNE 3, 2008: Syrian officials are willing to negotiate directly with their Israeli counterparts to discuss a peace deal, President Bashar Al Assad said here on Monday, but he stressed that "previous experiences" with Israel were "not encouraging." 

"Syria is not against direct negotiations. We have agreed to them since the [1991] Madrid Middle East Peace Conference... whenever the atmosphere was appropriate for direct negotiations," Bashar told Gulf News.

 "Success of the negotiations depends on the Israeli side and is related to the capability of the Israeli government and its stability to achieve this success," he said, highlighting the legal problems faced by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which could see him stepping down.

 "We have explained our vision for peace and are waiting for the Israeli response. However, our earlier experience in negotiations with Israel was not encouraging, and what Syria is doing now is making sure that Israel is ready for peace," Bashar said at a meeting with senior journalists on the second day of his visit to the UAE. He will leave today for Kuwait.

 Bashar said his recent visits are also aimed at "informing the Arab brothers on the latest developments regarding the indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations."

 

Negotiators from both countries are in Turkey, which is mediating between them. "There are no direct talks at this stage," the Syrian president said. 

"We believe indirect negotiations are sufficient at this stage as we are still negotiating to find a common ground. [But] we are willing to move to direct negotiations once this is reached," he said. 

Atomic energy 

He said Syria will not offer concessions over the 1967 territories. He said Damascus was negotiating on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, which calls for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war in return for full normalization. The Arab initiative is based on the Madrid conference's land for peace principles, he said. 

Bashar, meanwhile, strongly denied American and Israeli reports that suggested a site bombed by Israeli planes last year was a secret nuclear facility developed by North Korea.

 

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Bashar Al-Assad: vi offro la pace 

di Gianni Perrelli da Damasco 

Le condizioni per un accordo con Israele. I legami con Iran, Hamas e Hezbollah. E poi gli Usa, la Cina, l'Italia. Esclusivo: parla il presidente siriano. Colloquio con Bashar Al-Assad . 

La pace in cambio della terra. Nello spirito della Conferenza di Madrid del '91. Se Israele restituirà totalmente alla Siria le colline del Golan, ritirando il suo esercito fino alla frontiera del 4 giugno '67 (prima della guerra dei Sei giorni), il riconoscimento reciproco dei due paesi diventerà uno sbocco logico. Un processo di normalizzazione da inserire, naturalmente, nella cornice di un accordo globale di distensione che sancisca la nascita dello Stato palestinese con Gerusalemme Est capitale? 

Bashar al-Assad, 42 anni, presidente della Siria dal 2000 (dopo la morte del padre Hafez), annuncia in questa intervista esclusiva di voler moltiplicare gli sforzi per costruire una svolta storica in Medio Oriente. Giovanile sia nella gestualità che nell'abbigliamento (abito, camicia e cravatta di tonalità azzurre), si è intrattenuto per oltre un'ora con "L' espresso" nel suo studio privato sulle colline dirimpetto al palazzo presidenziale di Damasco. Parlando cordialmente ma senza peli sulla lingua - oltre che di Israele - di George Bush, delle imminenti elezioni americane, della Palestina, dell'Iran, dell'Iraq, del Libano, dell'Europa, dell'Italia, delle Olimpiadi, dei progressi della Siria e anche degli hobby personali. Dal vivo la sua immagine di leader dotato di una gentilezza naturale, anche se dal linguaggio molto esplicito, appare in netto contrasto con la rappresentazione del dittatore a capo di un paese canaglia che viene accreditata negli ambienti conservatori degli Stati Uniti.

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H. E. President Bashar Al-Assad gave a comprehensive interview to the Qatari ‘Al-Watan’ Daily, published April 27th 2008. 

Regarding Mideast Peace Process, H. E. President Bashar Al-Assad said: " Erdogan- the Turkish Premier, has informed me of the Israeli willingness to withdraw from the Golan in return for peace with Syria." " Mediations between Damascus and Tel Aviv have been intensified basically following the aggression against in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, and after the victory of the Resistance. The Turkish involvement to this effect came since April 2007 yielding new positive details; where Olmert – the Israeli Premier- affirmed to the Turkish Premier his willingness to return the Golan. We have received this news a week ago; following that we have heard Olmert saying " We know what Syria wants, and Syria knows what we want.". 

" What we need now is to find the common ground through the Turkish mediator,"" There would never be secret negotiations with Israel; there would be , if to take place, announced indirect negotiations through the Turkish side. We are to deal first with the issue of the restoration of the land as to see Israel credibility. We have to be precise and cautious in dealing with this issue; perhaps with a new US Administration, we can talk after that of direct negotiations.", " During the visit of the Turkish Premier to Damascus, though coming within the frame of the meetings of the Syrian-Turkish Businessmen Council, we, definitely, would talk about this point. ""Israel presents the idea of direct negotiations; this, however, has different basics. And now we do not talk of this; rather we talk about a Turkish role. It is a Turkish mediation conveying the basic information and details as to find a common ground. This is to be the basic as to launch direct negotiations in a later stage."

 “ We have dealt with peace mediation efforts with the same approach; you come to talk about mediation, and I tell you these are my rights. Only through this way, we can start peace negotiations with certain basics, certain prerequisites; we do not call them conditions, but prerequisites. Without these different points, it would be a waste of time. We need a clear-cut announcement by Olmert that he wants peace, second, that Olmert would present to the Turkish mediator: Erdogan- the Turkish Premier, that he was prepared to return the Golan. If Olmert was not prepared to return the Golan, there is no need to talk about this topic. “,  “ The direct negotiations need a sponsor, which is only the United States. Unfortunately, the current US Administration doesn’t possess neither the vision nor the will for peace process.” asserting in replay to another question  “ The basic role in the peace process is for the US because of its relation with Israel; not because it is stronger or weaker; but because the US has strong relations with Arab sides, and further stronger with Israel. There is a need for a party to exert pressure on Israel, or to influence it in the peace process. Russia can not play this role today, neither could play it in the past.”

 Regarding the said peace conference to be convened in Moscow in light of the Israeli intransigency , H.E. President Al-Assad said: “ No success whatsoever is to take place  in light of the Israeli intransigency. When Lavrov- the Russian Foreign Minister- visited Syria, he was not clear regarding the content of such a conference. It is not suffice to talk about the conference; what does a conference mean? Is it to meet around the table? What is important is the content. So far, we have received nothing regarding the content; we are not sure about the convening date of such a conference. The problem is not only the Israeli intransigency; but is within the US Administration, which has a big saying to this effect. So far nothing clear before us as to make us optimistic, though we have backed whatever conference to be convened in Moscow considering its credibility with Arabs as far as the cause of peace. Would Moscow be allowed to succeed? We do not trust neither Israel, nor the US.”

In reply to another question, H. E. President Al-Assad said: "Why did they attack us? We do not know. What was there information? They, however, knew and saw through satellites and did attack under construction post; where there were none inside, nothing; it was indeed empty! Is it possible to have a nuclear post without protection, without antiaircraft?", " A nuclear post under the surveillance of satellite in the middle of Syria in the desert, and in an open place! How could this be a nuclear site when the satellites daily monitor every meter we construct while we have been building it for many years?" adding "They seek a justification and do not know the reality of this site. They were confused when Syria announced the news, and confused upon seeing the results of their attack on the ground; they have bombed an empty site; what was then the justification for their attack?" 

In reply to another question, President Al-Assad said: " One time they said it was a nuclear site! Another time said it was arms supply post for Hizbuollah! Where from do arms arrive to Hizbuollah? Do they come from Turkey to the middle of Syria and to Lebanon!!! Or do the arms arrive from Iraq : from the US forces to the middle of Syria and to Lebanon?! Where do they come? We do not know; this is ridiculous! Later on, they said that they have air-dropped commandos taking samples! All this is but to justify their error and failure in not knowing the target. And this is the problem."

In reply to a question regarding Syrian response to the Israeli September attack, H. E. President Al-Assad said: “ The response does not mean a missile for missile, a bomb for bomb, neither a bullet for  bullet. We have deterrence means. We know that Israel wants to provoke Syria, and perhaps wants to lead Syria to war. We do not seek war. We, however, have other means to respond; it is not necessary to mention them.” asserting in reply to another question  “ As long as there is a glimmer of hope for peace, no body seeks war. War is an alternative once and one for all the hope for peace were to be  missed.”

 In reply to a question whether these means were through Hizbuollah in Lebanon, President Al-Assad said: “ No, to prove it Hizbuollah did not respond to Israel. Even Hizbuollah did not carry out any operation after 2006 war. When Hizbuollah kidnapped the Israeli soldiers, its objective was to liberate the Lebanese prisoners, some of them were leaders in Hizbuollah; Hizbuollah did not carry that for any-Syria related issue. It is unacceptable when some say that Hizbuollah is Syria’s arm; no body would die in a war as to satisfy Syria; nor for money or any other thing. They die for a cause.”

 In reply to a question regarding the assassination of Hizbuollah leader, Imad Mughnia, H.E. asserted that the investigations are still going on and have not reached so far to concrete results.

In reply to a question about the recent Damascus Arab Summit, H. E. the president said: “ The Arab participation in the Summit under these circumstances, though of all the pressures put, means that the Arab condition is not negative as we imagine. We can not say that the Arab condition is very negative when we see some Arab countries rejecting the US pressures and others’ pressures and come to the Summit; this is a very positive thing that we should never negate; we have to be realistic. As Arabs it is necessary for us to distance ourselves from lies and cheating; all the matters should be clear.”

 “ All the Arab countries, apart from the level of participation, did participate in the Summit; this is one factor for the Summit success. There has never been ‘political mines’ in the Summit is another success for the Summit. The convening of the Summit under these circumstances and pressures is a further success for the Summit.” added President Al-Assad, asserting that  “ The positive atmospheres of the Summit have made us more optimistic that any Arab tour by the Summit Presidency to make soon, might yield results. To be frank, there is no problem between Syria and Riyadh, nor between Syria and Cairo. There is a problem from the other side; they have misunderstanding for the Syrian stance. As for Syria, she has no demands from these countries. We consider that we do not have problems with them. This issue depends on them. I want to visit all Arab countries with no exception. “

 “ The problem is to characterize the relations among countries with personal features of Arab leaders , as well as the big suspicions. The problem is when n Arab party would believe that if I were not to be like him, then I stand against him; this is impossible! We, brothers within the same family, can never share the same viewpoint. How would be the case when it comes to the level of States? This is the problem of the Arab-Arab relations.” noted His Excellency in reply to another question.

In reply to a question regarding US Secretary of State recent statement about the said ‘no deal’ with Syria as far as the case of Hariri Assassination, H.E. President Al-Assad said: " We do reject a deal related to any issue; it is not part of our habits to make deals in politics; hence the issue doesn’t pertain to commodity selling and buying; it pertains to states rights, principles, and interests. In fact, what has happened is contrary to that, where we have been offered many things whether from the Americans or from those who relate to them. We have always told them that the issue of the international court is related to Lebanon, and is an agreement between the Lebanese government and the United Nations."

" Our answers have always been that that we never strike deals and that the issue of the court doesn’t relate to Syria. We have since the beginning supported through our declarations the international investigations. Further, Syria’s friends in Lebanon have supported the international investigations and the court during the dialogue preceding the war against Lebanon in 2006. Thus, such a statement- US Secretary of State one- is worthless, especially when there is the Administration, which indeed lacks credibility." noting that " When in anticipation the US Administration or some of its officials talk about the investigation results as to lead to this or that, this means that they have taken the place of the court; when a political administration talks on behalf of the judges means that this issue is manipulated for political purposes." added the President.

"We have repeated for all, Arabs and foreigners, who have discussed the issue of the court with us as if were of concern to us that this issue is of no interest for us; we even have rejected discussing this issue. Nevertheless, there is insistence by some that this issue causes worry, insistence to legate the events taking place in our region, especially in Lebanon, to Syrian worry or to some Lebanese. The only problem in the court is when it aims not as to search for the truth. Had the aim of the court been as to know the truth, where is the problem?! To prove this, Syria has cooperated with Brammerts Committee; Syria has cooperated in a satisfactory way with the Committee as all the reports presented by Brammerts to the UN state this clearly. Had there been any non cooperation , Brammerts would have stated said in his report. We have backed the international investigation and every action, means, way or solution which lead to the truth. There are some who take of using the court as a political means; if this was to be the case, then, Lebanon is to be harmed before Syria is to be so. Our concern in Syria comes from whatever disorder in Lebanon, and not from the court." wondering how could a false witness in Hariri case disappear in mysterious circumstances from France calling on France to announce the details of this disappearance ‘ in the interest of the investigation because this witness has fabricated lies against Syria. The whereabouts of this witness should be known in the interest of the investigation integrity; hence the investigation have to investigate the reasons behind this witness fabrications.", " we have sacrificed during 30 years of our past presence in Lebanon, whether in defending Lebanon against the Israeli invasion of 1982, or in other consequent stages, the thousands of the Syrian lives. Why have we done so? Because the Stability of Lebanon is directly reflected on the stability of Syria" asserting that Syria is to pay a heavy price for whatever instability in Lebanon.

 

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