President Shimon Peres sent a message to Syria, offering to return the Golan Heights in exchange for a promise that Damascus would sever its ties with Iran and various terrorist groups, Syrian President Bashar Assad told the Lebanese As-Safir paper in an interview published Tuesday.

Assad was quoted as saying that Peres sent the message through Russian President Dmitry Medvedev while on a visit to Russia last week. Medvedev embarked on a visit to the Middle East later that week. He visited Turkey and Syria, where he met with Hamas officials as well as Syrian ones.

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The president's office issued a clarification following the publication of the interview, confirming that Peres had indeed sent a message to Assad through Medvedev, but that he had not offered to hand over control of the Golan Heights.

According to the clarification, Peres stressed in his message to his Syrian counterpart that "Israel does not plan to attack Syria, nor does it intend to cause an escalation [of tensions] in the North."

His message further stated that Israel was interested in peace and "prepared to immediately engage in peace talks with the Syrians." He added, however, that Jerusalem would "not allow Syria to continue to two-time Israel by demanding a withdrawal from the Golan Heights on the one hand while setting up Iranian missiles on the mountains of the North."

Peres further stated that Israel would not "enter into peace talks while being threatened," urging Damascus to cease its support of Hamas and Hizbullah's terrorist activity.

'It is a mistake to write off the option of resistance'

"We do not trust the Israelis ... we are ready for war or peace at any moment," Assad told the newspaper. "Some make the mistake of writing off the option of resistance (a term used in the Arab world to connote militant warfare, especially against Israel), and they turn into prisoners of the peace option. They should be fully prepared for both," he said.

Assad added that Syria had entered mediated negotiations with Israel in 2008 fully intending to reach a "clear and final" solution, but that it seemed resistance was necessary for achieving peace. "If you are not strong, you are not respected," Assad said. He stressed that peace was not merely a symbolic olive branch, but a tangible and very real way to sort out the balance of power in the region. He then described the positive qualities of resistance, citing his achievements in recent years - among them renewed ties with the US and the West and Syria's "rich, strong national unity" - as manifestations of Syria's success.

When asked what Syria's position would be in the event that Israel attacked Lebanon, Assad smiled and told his interviewer, "I think the Israelis want to hear the answer to this question, and I will not fulfill their wish." Threats of war, he said, were about as likely to become a reality as suggestions of peace.

In April, the Kuwait-based Al-Rai newspaper reported that Syria had transferred ballistic Scud missiles to Hizbullah. According to the report, the missiles were recently transferred to Lebanon, prompting a stern Israeli warning that it would consider attacking both Syrian and Lebanese targets in response.



The Syrian president stressed that he would not put pressure on Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist movements to disarm or act against their will. Concerning the rift between Hamas and Egypt, Assad said his country did not "strive to play a part at [Egypt's] expense" and that despite disagreements between the two countries, there were no severe issues between them, but rather a basis for improvement. He added that unlike former US president George W. Bush, the Arab states did not employ a policy he described as "he who is not with me is against me."

Asked about Syria's regional interests, Assad replied that his country's "key interests" were "unity in Iraq, stability in Lebanon and dialogue with the US." In describing the way the relationship between Damascus and Washington had changed in recent years, Assad referred to his ties with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which had morphed into "mutual respect."

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