Syrian Bashar Assad described himself as a believer in democracy in an interview published Monday but given some two weeks before the death of his autocratic father, President Hafez Assad.
"I'm a believer in democracy and respect of others' opinions in the broadest possible sense," he said in the interview with the Egyptian independent weekly Al-Osboa newspaper.
I'm not one of those who keeps power for themselves," he added. "I believe in the need to open up to all opinions and listen to all viewpoints whether they agree or disagree."
On the battle against corruption, which started largely under his influence in the last months of his father's rule, he said, "We don't want to persecute anyone, but anyone who is found to have transgressed with regard to public money will naturally be held accountable through a fair trial."
With regard to policy towards Israel, Bashar stuck to his father's demand that Israel must withdraw from "every inch of occupied Syrian land" in return for a peace agreement.
This meant as far as the position of June 4th, 1967, before Israel occupied the strategic Golan Heights, which would put Syria on the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberius.
Bashar said peace was a "strategic choice" for his country, but "When Syria joined the Madrid conference (which kicked off the Middle East peace process in 1991) and later started peace negotiations with Israel, it did so on the basis of firm principles which we cannot accept to be fragmented or divided," he said.
Bashar told Al-Osboa's editor, Mustafa Bakri, that Syria had "got used to Israel's policy" of obstructing the peace process, which he said had led to a lack of trust in Israeli statements.
"They give example after example of how Israel is determined to continue its policy to impose a status quo on the ground, to ignore international resolutions.
"Israel has succeeded in gaining some time with this policy, but that will not cause us to forget our rights or push us to renounce even an inch of occupied land," he said.
Bashar said his father had attended a summit meeting with US President Bill Clinton because he thought he had secured a guarantee from Israel to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights.
But Assad was "surprised when the American president told him that Israel was prepared to withdraw from 95 percent of the occupied land in the Golan in return for security arrangements and all their other claims."
"President Assad's position was clear, he ended the meeting immediately and returned to Damascus," Bashar said.
On the subject of the Shebaa farms area on the border with Lebanon also occupied in 1967, he said, "It's Lebanese land and Israel has no choice but to withdraw from it, if it wants the border situation to calm down."
In another interview with the London-published Asharq al-Awsat daily Bashar, given about a week before his father's death, Bashar said water was more important to the Israelis than security, where they had a clear advantage over Syria.
"Contacts with Washington are continuing," he added. "President Bill Clinton has an understanding attitude towards the Syrian stance."
Asked if he expected peace in one or two years, Bashar said, "Peace is measured by results and not by time. Syria's views are clear -- we want an honorable and just peace."
Bashar, who was named Monday commander-in-chief of the armed forces as part of his ascension towards the presidency expected to be rubber-stamped by parliament on June 25th, also hinted that peace could bring a reduction in Syria's armed forces.
"The armed forces are not necessarily offensive and their size is determined by the needs of the country and likely threats," he said - CAIRO (AFP)
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