Syria's Assad praises Obama, wants meeting

ROME (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he hoped to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and expressed his willingness to help mediate between the West and Iran.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a news conference with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in Damascus January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Assad, in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica published on Wednesday, also confirmed he was ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel but expressed concern about the political climate there.

“With the pullout in Iraq, the will for peace, the closing of Guantanamo, (Obama) has shown himself to be a man of his word,” he said, referring to the U.S. naval base in Cuba where hundreds of suspected Islamist militants have been held, most for years without trial.

But Assad said it was too soon to speak of a “historic shift” in U.S. foreign policy.

Asked about meeting Obama, Assad said: “Yes, in principle. It would be a very positive sign. But I’m not looking for a photo opportunity. I want to see him, to talk.”

Obama has been reviewing U.S. policy toward Syria, including whether to return an ambassador to Damascus. Earlier this month he sent two envoys to Damascus earlier this month, where in a change of tone after years of animosity with Syria, one of the officials said they had found “a lot of common ground.”

Washington pulled its ambassador out of Syria after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Syria, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, denies any involvement in Hariri’s murder but the United States pointed fingers at Damascus.

Assad said the United States under Obama could play an important role bringing peace to the region. Although he voiced confidence about the growing diplomatic roles of countries like Turkey and France in the area, he said “only Washington can press Israel.”


Assad said he was willing to resume negotiations with Israel but expressed concerned about the ascent of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party after last months’ election.

“I’m not concerned about Netanyahu’s thinking, but of the return of the right-wing of Israeli society, which Netanyahu’s rise reflects. This is the biggest obstacle to peace.”

Israel and Syria last held direct peace talks in 2000 in the United States, failing to reach a deal on the future of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which Damascus wants returned.

Since mid-2008, Israel and Syria have held off-and-on indirect negotiations in Turkey.

On Iran, which Washington believes wants to build nuclear weapons, Assad said: ” ... with Iran, I’m ready to mediate.”

He urged the West to come up with concrete proposals for Tehran, which he said was “an important country, like it or not.” Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Of Iran’s role in Iraq, he said Tehran’s influence should not be seen as negative if based on “reciprocal respect” and drew distinction between influence and interference.

“If instead we’re talking about facilitating dialogue with Tehran, a concrete proposal is needed to give to that government. Until now, I’ve only received an invitation to play a role. Agreed, but that’s not enough,” Assad said.

“What’s lacking is a plan, rules and specific mechanisms to put forward to Tehran.”

Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Matthew Jones