DUBAI (Reuters) - The Syrian site Israel bombed in September was not part of a nuclear weapons program, but was a military facility under construction, President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Sunday.
Last week, Washington released intelligence alleging Syria had built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help before an Israeli air strike destroyed the facility on September 6.
“Is it logical? A nuclear site did not have protection with surface to air defenses? A nuclear site within the footprint of satellites in the middle of Syria in an open area in the desert?” Assad told Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper in an interview conducted before the U.S. accusations were made.
At that stage, he was commenting on media reports that said the target was a nuclear site. “The truth is that the raid was at a military site under construction,” Assad said in the interview. “We are against mass destruction weapons for Israel, Iran or others.”
Assad said it was illogical for Syria to seek a nuclear bomb. “Where would we use it? On Israel it would kill the Palestinians. I do not see this as logical.”
Assad accused Washington of ignoring a Syrian proposal to make the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction “because it included Israel”.
In 2003, when Syria was a member of the United Nations’ Security Council, the Arab state pushed for a ban on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the Middle East in what was seen than as a bid to shine a spotlight on Israel’s arsenal.
Israel is believed to have about 200 nuclear warheads but the country’s policy is not to discus the issue — which some diplomats say is an open secret.
Speaking after the U.S. accusations, Syria’s ambassador to the United States dismissed as “a fantasy” the U.S. allegations.
Assad said he did not know why Israel, officially at war with Syria since the 1973 Middle East conflict, bombed the site.
“Why did they raid it, we do not know what data they had, but they know and they see through satellites; they have raided an incomplete site that did not have any personnel or anything. It was empty,” he added.
Asked about Syria’s response, Assad said: “Retaliation does not mean a missile for a missile, a bomb for a bomb or a bullet for a bullet ... They (Israelis) understand what we mean. We do not say that we will retaliate, i.e. we will bomb.”
“You have to ask a different question; had Syria not been harming Israeli policy would Israel have carried out an operation of this sort? The truth is that we have the means to respond, but in our own way.”
“We understand Israel wants to provoke Syria and possibly to drag Syria into war while we do not seek war. We have been clear about this point. We have other means and we do not necessarily have to declare them.”
Assad refused to answer a question about reports that Syria was seeking to acquire Russian missiles.
“If there was a door open, even if it was small, for peace you should not seek war but you should seek to defend yourself. Now are you prepared or not, psychologically we are always ready and constantly prepare ourselves, but in terms of results no one knows results until the battle itself.”
Watan ran part of the interview on Thursday in which he said Damascus was ready to negotiate with Israel through Turkey to “find common ground” for peace, but any direct talks must wait until a new U.S. president is elected.
Syria says it received word from Turkey that Israel was willing to give back the occupied Golan Heights in full in return for peace with the Arab state — a key issue that led decade-long negotiations to falter in 2000.
Reporting by Summer Said; writing by Inal Ersan