TOKYO (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country could hold direct peace talks with Israel if the United States acted as an arbitrator, according to an interview published on Wednesday.
Assad also told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that he welcomed US President Barack Obama’s new administration and wants to engage in dialogue for regional peace, but he also insisted on the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“We need the United States to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations (with Israel),” he was quoted as saying in an interview with the Japanese-language newspaper.
Syria held exploratory contacts with Israel through Turkish mediators last year about resuming peace negotiations that broke off in 2000 over the fate of the strategic Golan plateau.
Assad cautioned that possible progress of such talks would “depend on the next Israeli administration,” the Asahi said.
US-Syrian ties were especially tense under former president George W. Bush, who accused Damascus of supporting terrorism, helping Iran and of turning a blind eye to the flow of arms and supplies to insurgents in Iraq.
Washington has not yet taken a decision about returning its ambassador to Syria, a senior US envoy said this month after visiting Damascus to mend ties.
Assad harshly criticised the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hit out at Bush for putting pressure on Syria, the Asahi said.
But he also stressed his willingness to help work toward regional peace.
“Changes do not happen overnight,” Assad was quoted saying. “We must first start dialogue to clarify the shared interest, which is to achieve peace.
“The administration of Bush did not do that, and it only cared about the benefit of his own country.”
Assad welcomed the Obama administration’s active engagement with Syria through sending envoys and US senators for meetings, the Asahi said.
“It is important that we first begin dialogue and both take part in resolving problems,” he told the newspaper. “It is not us who have changed. It is the Americans who have changed.”
To achieve regional peace, the Syrian president emphasised the importance of including major parties in the peace process, adding that he would work to bring Islamist militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah to the table.