DOES ASSAD WANT WAR OR PEACE? IT DEPENDS ON WHO IS INTERVIEWING HIM.
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondent and Agencies
Damascus is interested in peace talks with Israel and not in wiping it off the map, Syrian President Bashar Assad declared in an interview yesterday. Assad said that as part of the peace, the two countries would enjoy "normal relations," adding that he recognizes the fact that Syria must live alongside Israel, which has a right to exist.
"It is obvious... otherwise why negotiate?" Assad said in fluent English in an interview with John Simpson of the BBC.
This is the sixth time since the end of the fighting in Lebanon on August 14 that the Syrian leader has called for peace talks with Israel.
Assad made use of two analogies to discuss the need for peace negotiations. The first concerned a steering wheel held by a number of drivers, with Assad emphasizing the importance of making sure that everyone involved wished to reach the same place. The second was about two dancers: "If one dances the tango and the other the waltz, both will fall," he warned.
Assad said the peace process should be guided by UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory in return for peace.
He added that the right climate for a peace process was still not prevalent in the Middle East, but that now was the right time to make progress on the matter. "It is always the time... After war, there is a need to talk about peace," he said.
The Syrian leader rejected Simpson's statement that in Israel, Syria was perceived as wishing to wipe it off the map. "Your question is the proof that they are not paying close attention in their reading," the Syrian president said. "They neither read the lines nor between the lines... How can we wish to wipe Israel off the map and at the same time ask for peace and negotiations? To wipe someone out and talk about normalcy? That is not objective."
Contrary to an interview granted recently to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Assad made no mention of Syria's preparations for war in the BBC interview. In interviews to the Arab press, Assad has repeatedly warned of a deterioration that could lead to war; but in the European press, his tone is one of accommodation.
Since the end of the war in Lebanon, Assad has reiterated that the Golan will be "liberated by Syrian arms" and has called on Israel to "seek peace or face the threat of defeat."
In his interview to the Kuwaiti daily, Assad said that Syria's armed forces were on alert because they anticipated a possible Israeli attack "at any moment."
In the same interview, however, he said that "80 percent of the issues [between Syria and Israel] for negotiation have already been concluded."
On the same note of optimism, he told German weekly Der Spiegel in September that "I will not say that Israel needs to be wiped off the map. We want to make peace, peace with Israel."
A few days later he told the Spanish El Pais that negotiations could take only six months, if they were picked up where they were left off in 1999.
The Syrian leadership understands Israel's demand that it cease offering support for Hamas and Hezbollah; but Damascus has yet to issue a statement on this thorny issue.