Syria and Israel Talks Seek Common Ground

Written by MEMRI


May 7, 2008

Memri Special Dispatch | No. 1921 |

Syrian President Assad: Syria's Contacts with Israel Are Aimed at Establishing Common Ground for Negotiations

In a comprehensive April 27, 2008 interview, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad told the editor-in-chief of the Qatari daily Al-Watan, Ahmad Ali, that Turkey was mediating contacts between Syria and Israel, and that efforts were being made to establish common ground for future negotiations between the two countries.

Also in the interview, Assad denied that the Syrian facility bombed by Israel on September 6, 2007 was part of a Syrian nuclear program, and added that the notion of Syria using nuclear weapons against Israel was unreasonable.

With regard to Syrian-Iranian relations, Assad said that his country was providing political support to Iran, but that the two countries had no mutual defense agreement under which Syria would provide military assistance were Iran to be attacked.

Assad also referred to the rift in the Arab world over the March 2008 Arab League summit in Damascus, and announced that he would tour the Arab countries in the near future.

The following are excerpts from the interview.(1)

Erdogan Told Us that Olmert Was Ready to Return the Golan

Ahmad Ali: "Israeli President [sic] [Ehud] Olmert said that messages have been exchanged between the two of you, and that Tel Aviv was interested in reaching a peace agreement with Damascus... What sort of messages [were they], who conveyed them, and what point have you reached?..."

Assad: "These mediation efforts have been going on for years, but they increased dramatically after the 2006 aggression against Lebanon and the victory of the resistance... [The messages] you mentioned were the first signal [we received] from Olmert [indicating that Israel] wants peace. They reached us through Turkey's mediation efforts, which have been going on for an entire year, since last April, and which were conducted by [Turkish] Prime Minister Erdogan, and later by [Turkish] President Abdullah Gül.

"We told the [Turkish mediators] that, from our [perspective], some points had to be clear. First, [there must be] an explicit announcement on Olmert's part that he is interested in peace. Second, Olmert must explicitly declare to the Turkish mediator, Erdogan, that he is willing to return the Golan. If he is not, there is no point in negotiating this issue.

"Last week, PM Erdogan informed us by phone that Olmert was ready to return the Golan. Later we heard that Olmert had said: 'We know what Syria wants, and Syria knows what we want...'"

Referring to the format of the negotiations, Assad added: "Israel is now proposing direct negotiations... We are not talking of direct negotiations at the moment, but about a Turkish mediation that will convey to us basic information and data necessary for establishing common ground for direct negotiations in the future.

"However, direct negotiations require a sponsor, which can only be the U.S. That is unfortunate, but it is a fact. [The problem is that] the current [U.S.] administration has no vision or desire for a peace process. That is why [at the moment] we are [only] talking about establishing common ground through a Turkish mediation...

"Obviously, if there are negotiations, they will not be [conducted] in secret but in the open. [Moreover,] they will not be direct; we will be in touch with the Turks and they will be in touch with the Israelis. [As for the agenda,] we will first of all address the issue of land, in order to test Israel's integrity. After all, there is no trust between us and Israel [because] we are familiar with Israel's games. That is why we must be cautious and precise in discussing this issue. If we [manage to] establish [common] ground, maybe we can bring up [the option of] direct negotiations with the next American administration."

Ali: "Based on your official statements [here], can we announce... to all the Arabs and all the peoples of the Middle East that the solution is near?"

Assad: "No, don't make such an announcement, because I cannot guarantee what the other side [i.e., Israel] will do..."

The Building Israel Struck was an Empty Military Facility Under Construction

Ali: "There was a big commotion over the Israeli [air]strike in September [2007]. We would like to know the truth regarding this matter."

Assad: "The truth is that [Israel] attacked a military facility under construction... I do not know what information [the Israelis] had at their disposal, but they use satellites... the facility they struck was under construction. There were no people in it, or anything else. It was empty."

Ali: "It has been said that this facility was intended for the development of a nuclear program."

Assad: "No. Is there likely to be a nuclear facility undefended by anti-[aircraft missiles], [right] under the watchful eye of the satellites, in the middle of Syria, in an open area in the desert?... They [are only] trying to excuse [their attack]. They have no idea what this facility was...

"They were embarrassed when they saw the results on the ground. They had struck an empty building, so what could they [say] as an excuse? First they said it was a nuclear facility, then they said it was a Hizbullah arms depot... These are laughable claims.

"Then they said that they had dropped commando troops [into the area] and had collected samples. All this talk was meant to justify their mistake and their failure to [correctly] identify the target..."

Ali: "After the attack, you declared that you had ways to respond and a right to respond. But the truth of the matter is that Syria did nothing more than submit a complaint to the U.N. Do you think that the Syrian response is appropriate for Israel's act of aggression?"

Assad: "'Response' does not necessarily mean a missile for a missile, a bomb for a bomb and a bullet for a bullet. The question is: If Syria hadn't impeded Israel's policy, would Israel have carried out such an act?

"The truth is that we have our own ways to respond. [The Israelis] know what we mean... We understand that Israel wishes to provoke Syria, and maybe even to drag it into a war, [but] we are in no hurry to fight. We were clear on this point. We do, however, have other ways [to respond], and there is no need for me to go into details."

Ali: "As observers from the sidelines, can we assume that these 'other ways' [involve] Syria's military tool in Lebanon, namely Hizbullah?"

Assad: "No, and the proof [of this] is that Hizbullah did not react to the Israeli [attack]... The talk about Hizbullah being an arm of Syria is ludicrous. It is inconceivable that people should [go to] die in wars [just] to appease Syria. You shouldn't buy into this logic. [People] do not die for money or for [incentives] of that sort, but only for their [own] cause.

"I have no intention of divulging [our] means [of response]. The question is why Israel perpetrates such acts against Syria... If Syria is a weak and inconsequential country that has no influence over our region, why should Israel do this?"

Ali: "Excuse me, Mr. President, why are we not seeing military resistance movements [acting] in the occupied Golan?"

Assad: "Resistance arises when there is no army that can defend [the people]. The fact is that Israel likewise refrains from invading [Syria] from the Golan... In Lebanon the situation is different. Israel did invade Lebanon. It occupied its land, besieged Beirut and destroyed it... All the circumstances are different... We have a regular army focused on a well-defined task. It is constantly developing, and its purpose is to defend [Syrian] soil or to liberate the occupied [Syrian lands] in the future."

The Wars in the Region Will Remain Conventional

Ali: "Do you now support Iran's right to attain nuclear energy? Do you support its nuclear program, even if Tehran suddenly attains [the ability] to develop a nuclear bomb?"

Assad: "No. All countries in the world, not only Iran, have the right to [use nuclear] energy for peaceful purposes... But we are against Iran, Israel or any other [country] possessing weapons of mass destruction."

Ali: "If Tehran will have a nuclear bomb, will it also be your nuclear bomb, as strategic allies of Iran?"

Assad: "No. How would we use this bomb? Where would we use it?"

Ali: "[You could use it] to restore the balance [of power] in the region."

Assad: "Since World War II, no [country] has used nuclear weapons. Where would we use it? Against Israel? It would kill Palestinians. That makes no sense."

Ali: "[You could use it] to restore the balance of power vis-à-vis Israel."

Assad: "In practice, the wars in the region will continue to be conventional. In my opinion, nuclear bombs will not make a significant difference, and I do not believe that Iran's position [on this matter] is any different."

Syria and Iran Have No Mutual Defense Agreement

Ali: "The U.S. defense secretary said a few days ago that a war with Iran would be disastrous for the region, but he did not rule it out completely. What is your response?"

Assad: "Such a war would have a price that we would continue to pay not for decades, but perhaps for a century. There is no way of knowing where it would lead the region..."

Ali: "Senior Iranian leaders have declared that Iran will not stand by if Syria is attacked, God forbid. What will be Syria's position if Iran is attacked?"

Assad: "The two countries have no mutual defense agreement and do not constitute a 'front.' Iran is not required to send troops to Syria, and Syria is not required to send troops to Iran. We will rely on the model of the Iran-Iraq war. [Back then] we supported Iran, but did not send in troops. We did not fight Saddam [Hussein] on Iran's behalf. The same goes for our relationship with Hizbullah and the resistance. Weapons are not the point. There is no shortage of weapons, and it can be obtained in all kinds of ways. Gaza is besieged from every direction, [yet] it has arms it did not possess before. The resistance is capable of obtaining anything. Don't believe that there are barriers [that can prevent this from happening]. [As far as we are concerned,] the [important] point is political support and support for [people's] rights. That is the point..."

Saudi Arabia and Egypt Misunderstand Syria's Position

Ali: "During the [Damascus] summit you said that the follow up to the [summit's] decisions was more important than the decisions themselves. Will we [soon] witness a Syrian diplomatic move meant to follow up and implement the decisions? Or will the climate of conflict in the Arab [region] impede the implementation of the decisions?"

Assad: "On the contrary... the atmosphere [that prevailed] in the summit gave us more hope, and I soon [plan to] set out on a tour [of the region] as the president of the [Arab] summit. We have started to work out the itinerary..."

Ali: "Where will you begin the tour, and what countries will it include?"

Assad: "That depends on the itinerary. It will include nearly all the [Arab] countries..."

Ali: "[Including] Riyadh and Cairo?"

Assad: "I tell you honestly – Syria has no problem with Riyadh and Cairo. It is they who have a problem [with Syria]. They misunderstand the Syrian position. Syria has no demands of these countries. It has no problem with them. [So] it is up to them. I wish to visit all the Arab countries, without exception."

Ali: "So this means you will visit Riyadh and Cairo?"

Assad: "Of course. If they have no objections, that would be natural."

Reactions in Iran: Syria Will Not Trade its Relations with Iran for a Few Hills

The secret Israeli-Syrian negotiations confirmed in this interview by President Al-Assad surprised Iran, which expressed its objections and displeasure. In a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem during his visit to Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated, "The American [presence in the Middle East] is temporary, and everyone who is on their side will [have to] leave along with them."(2)

An editorial in the daily Kayhan, which is affiliated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated that Syria considered it more important to be part of the same strategic axis as Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad than to recover the Golan Heights. The paper said: "In the next few months, Syria will play a pivotal role in the important changes [that will occur in the Middle East]… Naturally, the Israelis believe that in order to prevent their complete downfall, they must defeat the strategic axis of Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas by any possible means…

"But Syria will never err in identifying its strategic interests… and it is quite obvious that Iran and Lebanon are much more important to it than the Golan Heights.

"There is no doubt that Syria's reasoning is rigorous enough to preclude trading its strategic advantage and the deterrence capabilities it has gained from its ties with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad for a few hills."(3)
(1) Al-Watan (Qatar), April 27, 2008.
(2) IRNA (Iran), April 24, 2008.
(3) Kayhan (Iran), April 29, 2008. 
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region's media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.


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