May 27, 2008 / 8:50 PM / in 10 years

Syria's Assad dismisses Israeli demand on Iran

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday dismissed Israeli demands that Syria abandon an alliance with Iran as a requirement for a peace deal.

Assad told British parliamentarians that the Baath Party government intended to maintain “normal relations” with Iran while it conducts indirect talks with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, a source familiar with the meeting told Reuters.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said a peace agreement depends on Syria distancing itself from Iran and severing ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian group Hamas. The two organizations are also supported by Iran.

“The president said Syria has normal relations with Iran. He made it clear that any suggestion to drop them was not a reasonable request,” the source said.

“He said if Israel could question Syria’s relations with Iran, then Syria could question Israel’s ties with other countries, particularly the United States.”

The parliamentarians, including former interior minister Charles Clarke, are on a trip to hear Syria’s take on the Middle East at first hand.

Syria and Israel said last week they were having indirect talks mediated by Turkey, the first confirmation of any talks since 2000.

A week after the announcement, Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani visited Tehran to discuss closer military cooperation, Syrian government newspapers said.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, also made a separate trip to the Iranian capital.

LONG-STANDING ALLIANCE

The official Syrian news agency said Assad underscored to the British delegation need for “comprehensive peace and full restoration of rights”, a reference to the Palestinian quest for a state on all the land Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

Syria’s alliance with Iran dates back to 1980, when Damascus, alone in the Arab world, took Iran’s side in its war with Iraq.

Syria has reinforced its links with the Islamic Republic over the last few years to counter pressure from the United States, including sanctions imposed by Washington in 2004.

Syria’s link with Hezbollah contributed to an expansion of U.S. sanctions on Syria and increased isolation from the West, but European officials have praised Syria for its role in this month’s agreement that ended the political crisis in Lebanon.

Assad said progress on the Syrian-Israeli peace track would encourage Lebanon and Israel to initiate their own talks.

“The president hinted that it would not be in Lebanon’s interest if it did not have its own talks if Syrian-Israeli talks advanced,” the source said.

Syrian forces pulled out of Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year presence under international pressure following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri, but Syria retains influence, largely through Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government say the Shebaa Farms region, occupied by Israel, is Lebanese. The United Nations says Shebaa Farms is Syrian land.

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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