DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signalled on Thursday that Damascus might not cooperate with a U.N.-backed court to try suspects in the killing of a former Lebanese premier if it indicted Syrian officials.
In a speech that stressed the need to preserve Syrian jurisdiction over possible Syrian suspects in the killing, Assad said Damascus would not cooperate with the tribunal if it took actions that undermined Syrian sovereignty. “We have nothing directly to do with the court. Any cooperation requested from Syria that compromises national sovereignty is totally rejected,” Assad told a parliament session in the Syrian capital. “Some don’t differentiate between cooperation and abandoning sovereignty. The abandonment of sovereignty means that Syrian law no longer protects Syrian citizens,” he said.
A United Nations investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut.
Assad has denied any Syrian involvement in the killing but has said any Syrian found to be involved would be tried by a Syrian court.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week Washington might seek to force setting up of the tribunal by the U.N. Security Council after a political crisis in Beirut paralysed parliament and blocked any attempts to get Lebanon to approve the court.
International pressure and Lebanese protests led Syria to end 29-year military dominance over its smaller neighbour two months after Hariri was killed.
Assad said Syria was under pressure by Washington to change its “fundamental stands” in support of the resistance, a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas groups.
The 41-year-old president said preserving national cohesion was a priority, as well as economic growth under a policy that is slowly opening the economy after decades of nationalisation. “We achieved good economic growth in the last few years, but it’s not enough. Mechanisms must be put in place to improve the administration and combat corruption,” Assad said.
The economy grew 5 percent in 2006, according to official figures, despite political uncertainty and the war between Israel and Syria’s ally Hezbollah.
Assad said he saw no peace with Israel in the foreseeable future despite international efforts to end the state of war between the two countries. He said a weak Israeli government was under pressure from the United States not to make peace with Syria. “The peace process has made no progress. Many parties took the initiative to play a role. We were positive toward them but most went and didn’t come back because of Israel’s refusal to abide by the basics of peace and the pressure it came under from the United States,” Assad said. “All parties must be ready to commit to the `land for peace’ principle and international resolutions. Israel must declare its readiness to return all occupied territory. The return of the Golan Heights is an issue we cannot compromise on,” Assad said.
Syria has been renewing its calls for peace talks with Israel to negotiate the return the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau overlooking Damascus that was occupied by the Jewish state in 1967.
Relations between Damascus and the United States, Israel’s chief ally, have plummeted because of Syria’s role in Iraq and Lebanon.