Assad: We'll talk to any Israeli leader

Syrian president adds that Golan must be returned and Israel withdraw to '67 borders, or no peace deal.

Bashar Assad 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Despite the suspension of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria following the start of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Damascus is still interested in peace, and would be willing to talk with both the new US administration and the leadership chosen in Israel on February 10, Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Monday. "As long as there are preconditions, there won't be negotiations," Assad said during an interview with the Hizbullah-affiliated al-Manar television station. In addition, the Syrian president said that he was interested in restarting indirect talks with Israel, regardless of who is chosen in the coming elections. He cautioned, however, that "if whoever is elected is not willing to withdraw from the Golan to the [pre-1967 border], there won't be negotiations." Assad also struck an angry tone against the current Israeli leadership, saying that it was Jerusalem which had prevented the peace talks from advancing. "The indirect contacts between Israel and Syria proved that Israel does not want peace," he said. "In Israel, there really isn't the will to achieve peace." "If Olmert came today and said that he was ready for peace, what would we say to him? We would say that he is a criminal, and that we don't conduct negotiations with criminals," Assad continued, adding that in recent weeks contact has been made with Israel, "but Israel didn't express any willingness for peace talks." "We [learned] that Israel only understands the language of force," the Syrian president asserted. Regarding diplomacy with the United States, Assad was cautiously optimistic. "We have positive indicators, but we have learned to be cautious and not to count on these indicators as long as there isn't anything tangible," he said. "I believe that the dialogue began seriously weeks ago through officials close to the administration. They were sent by the administration for dialogue with Syria." Asked if the region was heading toward wars or agreements, Assad said "we see hope for settlements and not wars after the departure of the (Bush) administration that adopted preemptive war as a policy, which is a principle of war only. Now there is an administration that rejects this principle." A day after US President Barack Obama took office, Assad sent him a letter saying that Syria was looking forward to "fruitful dialogue" with the United states based on "mutual interests and mutual respect" that leads to a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East. AP contributed to this report.