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SYRIA: Back on the world stage, with a fury

July 11, 2008 |  8:37 am

It’s payback time for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Just as he prepared to move his country out of almost four years of isolation imposed by Americans and Europeans, Assad pointed out that Syria was an important player in the fight against terrorism.

Syriabasharalassad01Even the French, who shunned Damascus for years, now acknowledge that developing relations with Syria was "in favor of Lebanon and the region."

In an interview with the Arab daily Al Hayat published today, French official Claude Gueant said permanent solutions to Middle East's problems would not be possible without Syria's participation.

Assad is expected in France to attend a summit of European and Mediterranean countries in the next day. Recently, the Syrian president made a flurry of dovish remarks to a group of French journalists who interviewed him in his private retreat on the hills of Damascus.

One of those who interviewed Assad, Alain Gresh, editor of the French monthly publication Le Monde Diplomatique, described him as "confident, relaxed, talkative."

In an article that appeared Thursday on the website of the publication and that was translated into English in the Monthly Review, Gresh quoted Assad as accusing the current U.S. administration of obstructing peace: 

The biggest obstacle to peace is the White House. This is the first time a U.S. administration has advised Israel not to make peace.

Syria and Israel held indirect peace talks recently through Turkish mediation. But the prospects of quick breakthroughs remain slim. The West is trying to persuade Damascus to loosen its ties with Tehran, an unlikely prospect.

Asked about Iran, Assad described his country’s strong links to the Islamic Republic as a relationship between two equal allies:

We have been isolated by the United States and Europe. The Iranians have supported us, and yet I'm supposed to tell them: I don't want your support — I want to be isolated! We don't need to agree on everything to have relations. We see each other regularly for discussion. The Iranians do not try to change our position — they respect us. We make our own decisions, as in the time of the Soviet Union. If you want to talk about stability, and peace in the region, we must have good relations with Iran.

Talking about threats to peace in the region, Assad also criticized the way Americans have led their war on terrorism:

Terrorism is a threat to all humanity. Al Qaeda is not an organization but a state of mind that no border can block out.... I fear for the future of the region. We must change the soil that nurtures terrorism. This requires economic development, culture, an education system, tourism — and also an international exchange of information on terrorist groups. The army alone cannot solve this problem, as the Americans are trying to do in Afghanistan.

U.S. refusal to negotiate with his country was counterproductive, he said: 

They must accept that we are part of the solution not just in Lebanon but also in Iraq and Palestine. They need us to combat terrorism in order to achieve peace. They cannot isolate us, nor can they solve the region's problems by manipulating such words as "good" and "evil," "black" and "white." You need to negotiate, even if you do not agree on everything.

Assad's official visit to France to take part in Bastille Day celebrations comes as a sign of international recognition after the signing of a peace agreement among Lebanese rivals in Doha in May. For the last few years, Syria had been accused by the international community of creating instability in Lebanon. But relations between the two countries are back on track with the presidents of both countries scheduled to meet in France.

In an earlier interview published Monday in the French daily Le Figaro, Assad expressed his hopes for the next U.S. administration: 

Frankly, we do not think that the current American administration is capable of making peace. It doesn't have either the will or the vision and it only has a few months left.... We are betting on the next president and his administration. We hope that it will be rather an advantage to have a change of president in the United States.

— Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons