Syria wants peace with Israel

2009-03-30 17:05

Doha - The Syrian president said on Monday that he is still interested in pursuing peace with Israel but insisted that "resistance" by militants must continue to force the incoming Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate.

Bashar Assad has repeatedly expressed his readiness to reach a peace deal with Israel over the past year. His speech on Monday to a summit of Arab leaders suggested Assad still hopes for talks but was taking a tougher tone to confront what he expects to be a hard-line stance from Netanyahu's government coalition, dominated by right-wing parties.

The "real aim of Israel's recently elected government is against peace" and that the composition of the incoming cabinet is a "clear, unsurprising message to us", Assad said.

"This doesn't demand we change our strategic option regarding peace," Assad said. "But [our] tactics and mechanisms must change, not with the changing the governments of Israel but with... the aggressiveness Israel shows toward us."

Assad underlined the need for continued "resistance," a reference to anti-Israeli militant groups like the Palestinian Hamas, which Damascus supports.

Resistance the 'only option'

Resistance is a "national and patriotic and moral duty and it is the only option," he said. "Peace cannot be achieved with an enemy who does not believe in peace without it being imposed on him by resistance."

Israel and Syria held four rounds of indirect talks mediated by Turkey last year, but Syria cut off the negotiations in protest over Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza in January and February.

In any peace deal, Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel in turn demands Damascus ends its alliance with Iran and its support for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Assad has said in interviews since that the Turkey-mediated talks had stalled because Israel wouldn't make an unambiguous commitment to return all the territory captured in 1967. The outgoing Israeli government of Ehud Olmert has not commented on details of the talks.

Direct talks between the countries broke down in 2000 over a similar issue of the extent of an Israeli withdrawal.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said Assad's speech on Monday showed that Damascus' intentions on peace remain unclear.

Contradictory statements

"Once again Assad contradicts his own statements. Just recently he went on record saying that he had been on the verge of signing a treaty with Olmert and that Syria hopes peace talks will continue with the next government," Palmor said.

Speaking to Arab leaders on Monday in the Qatari capital, Assad also denounced as ineffective a comprehensive Arab land-for-peace offer to Israel, which has been on the table for seven years.

The Doha gathering is expected to endorse a resolution renewing Arab nations' commitment to the offer, known as the Arab peace initiative, but also warning Israel that this offer will not stay on the table for too long.

The initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia, offers Israel recognition by all Arab countries in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from territory it occupied in 1967, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees.