Syrian President Asks U.S. to Push Israel Talks-NYT

December 2, 2003
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with The New York Times on Monday, appealed to the United States to use its influence to revive talks between his country and Israel.

The Syrian president called the absence of diplomacy a gaping hole in U.S. President George W. Bush's strategy for the Middle East, according to the report.

He said details of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in return for security guarantees to Israel were 80 percent complete a few months before he succeeded his late father as Syria's president, according to the paper.

But he told The New York Times that the White House, focused on Iraq and the Palestinians, had shown little interest in this diplomatic area and that neglecting the Syrian-Israel dispute showed how the U.S. preaches about visionary change in the region but fails to adopt practical measures to attain it.

"You cannot just keep talking about this vision; you have to put a mechanism in order to achieve that vision," he said, speaking to the paper in Damascus.

The Syrian president talked with a generally conciliatory tone toward the United States, stressing that the poor U.S. image in the Arab world could be overcome, and that Syria did not regard the United States as an adversary, the newspaper said.

His Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said in remarks carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) that Damascus wanted "a constructive and serious dialogue with the United States...to achieve a better understanding of the policies and basic interests of both countries".

Shara was speaking after a meeting with former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Murphy, who also met Assad on Sunday.

In November, the U.S. Congress approved measures to impose diplomatic and trade sanctions against Syria mainly for backing anti-Israel "terror" groups. Murphy said the bill was "probably going to be signed by President Bush in the near future...(but) there is what is called a waiver for the president that if he does not believe it in America's national interest to impose the sanctions that the Act calls for then he does not have to take action." Traditionally tense ties between the United States and Syria were further strained after the U.S.-led war in Iraq as Washington pressed Damascus for more cooperation in its Middle East policies which Syria says are aimed at furthering Israeli interests at the expense of Arabs. (Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Damascus)