Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has called for Washington to use its influence to revive negotiations between his country and Israel, portraying their absence as a gaping hole in the Bush administration's strategy for the Middle East.
Assad, in an interview published Monday in The New York Times, said the details of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for security guarantees to Israel were 80 percent complete a few months before he succeeded his late father as Syria's president. But the Bush administration, preoccupied by Iraq and the Palestinian issue, has shown little interest in this strand of diplomacy, the Syrian leader said.
"There can be no peace in the region without Syria," he said. "And Syria is important for the future stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq."
The president added neglecting the Syrian-Israel dispute was a prime example of the Bush administration's preaching of visionary change to the Middle East without adopting practical measures to attain it.
"You cannot just keep talking about this vision, you have to put a mechanism in order to achieve that vision," he said.
Assad said he had no preconditions for resuming talks with Israel. But given the progress made before they foundered in March 2000 over the issue of borders, it would be a waste of time to start from scratch, he said.
"If such talks did succeed," the Syrian president said "he saw no reason that Syria could not have full, normal relations with Israel." "This word has no limit: normalization means like the relations between Syria and the United States," he said.
Assad insisted that Damascus had already taken many of the actions demanded by the Bush administration in terms of policing its borders and closing the offices of Palestinian factions.
Assad emphasized that America's low public standing in the Arab world could be overcome, and that Syria did not regard the United States as an adversary.
The Syrian president said his intelligence agencies continued to cooperate closely with the C.I.A. in combating terrorism, and had provided information that allowed the United States to foil imminent attacks on Americans in at least seven cases.
He declined to give specific details, saying that doing so might affect future cooperation.
Assad said Syria was no longer permitting anti-American volunteers to pass at official border crossings, but he said he was powerless to control infiltrations across the border. He dismissed the idea that foreign fighters were an important element in the Iraqi resistance. "Maybe you have 1,000 or 2,000 people from outside Iraq, but what about the 25 million Iraqis?" he asked.
© 2003 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )