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Last Updated: Monday, 9 October 2006, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Syrian president's patient wait for peace
By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Mr Assad does not have to worry about troublesome elections

For a man who has just been pointedly ignored by Condoleezza Rice on her latest Middle East tour, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seems remarkably relaxed.

From his point of view, the dangers are a great deal less nowadays.

Because Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah during its attacks on Lebanon this summer, Hezbollah's backer Syria no longer fears an Israeli attack.

And there seems no chance that the United States, weakened by its own failures in Iraq, and distracted by its confrontations with Iran and North Korea, will do anything against Syria.

President Assad has another major advantage: he can play the long game. His father, whom he succeeded in 2000, was effectively president-for-life. He himself does not have to worry too much about troublesome elections.

So when I went to the immense presidential complex on the edge of Damascus to interview him, I found him relaxed, thoughtful and willing to wait a long time for the right moment to make peace with Israel.

Peace-feelers

He clearly feels the present Israeli government has been too weakened to be able to make a lasting peace agreement.

The United States... doesn't have the vision towards peace, it doesn't have vision towards Iraq, it doesn't have vision towards terrorism
President Bashar al-Assad

But anyway he knows nothing can happen without Washington; and he is scathing about what he regards as President Bush's inability to forge a Middle East peace.

"So far", he said, "the United States doesn't have the will to play this role, and it doesn't have the vision towards peace. Of course," he went on, "it doesn't have vision towards Iraq, it doesn't have vision towards terrorism and many other issues."

Implicitly, therefore, he rules out any chance of a comprehensive peace agreement until President Bush has left office and his successor has had time to settle in. So from the Syrian perspective we could be talking about 2009 or even later.

President Assad says he has put out peace-feelers to Israel already. Ehud Olmert, Israel's embattled prime minister, has rejected them; but other leading Israeli politicians think it might be necessary to talk to Syria.

I suggested to President Assad that Israel would be more likely to respond favourably if Syria cut its ties with movements and regimes which sought Israel's destruction. He defended his links with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, but insisted he did not want to see Israel wiped off the map.

When I asked him if Syria and Israel would one day be able to live side-by-side in peace, each accepting the other's existence, he answered promptly. "Yes, the answer is yes."

New approach

I pressed him about the charges that he had supplied weapons and help to Hezbollah, but he insisted that he gave political support, and nothing more. People who wanted to resist would always find weapons, he added.

Supporters of Hezbollah in Beirut, Lebanon
Mr Assad said he gave political support, not weapons, to Hezbollah

He has also been accused of helping the insurgents in Iraq. Was he, I asked, prepared to help the people who killed British and American soldiers?

He replied that people had a right to resist any occupying forces, and Syria supported that right. But he insisted that he did not help the Iraqi insurgents. In fact, he said, Syria had stopped many would-be insurgents crossing the border.

President Assad is a quiet, intellectually precise man, who looks much more like the ophthalmologist he once was than the leader of a country accused of giving support to terrorism.

He is clearly trying to introduce a new approach to the exercise of power in a traditionally fierce autocracy, persuading people that they should not see their president as super-human and all-powerful.

But was he really the one in charge here, I asked, or did someone else tell him what to do? His father would probably have ordered me out of the country if I had asked him that - and of course I would not have needed to.

Bashar al-Assad merely smiled and said yes, he was certainly in charge. "But for me," he went on, "the biggest mistake is to flout the public will".

The so-called Damascus Spring which he introduced has long since faded, but he insisted he still wanted to open Syria up. Then he added: "Reform does not mean losing control."

For all his quiet calmness, you can still see occasional signs of his father's steeliness.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
An interview with Syrian's President Assad





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