Assad says better off than Mubarak
Syrian president claims Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt suffering for connection with US, Israel, discusses need for reform and says peace process isn't dead: 'You don't have any other option. If you want to talk about a 'dead peace process,' this means everybody should prepare for the next war'
Assad told the US newspaper that in contrast to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country is on the verge of a revolution, he has more time to prepare for reforms because of his anti-US stance. According to Assad, his conflict with Israel leaves him in a better position with his citizens.
Due to the wave of attempted revolutions, Assad said that the Middle East is standing before a "new era" and that Arab rulers will have to do more to adapt themselves to their citizens' political and economic aspirations.
Assad told the wall Street Journal that the Arab nations need time to construct institutions and improve education before opening up participation in the political system. According to Assad, the growing demands for swift political reform could harm Arab societies if they are unprepared for those reforms.
I'll promote reform
And yet, the Syrian president believes that his situation is better than Mubarak's."If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform, he noted.
"We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance."
In spite of what Assad said, just two weeks ago, following the uprising in Tunisia and fears over a wave of uprisings in the Arab world, his government carried out a cautious move which has been seen as an attempt to soften up Syrian citizens when it increased subsidies at a rate that could seriously hurt the national budget.
In the interview Assad explained that he intends to promote reforms this year, but added that it was clear that these reforms were not on the same scale as those being demanded by Egyptian protestors. He noted that he was interested in improving relations with the US and even cooperate in the war against al-Qaeda, but wasn't willing to do so at the expense of his country's relations with Iran.
Talks still possible
In the interview the Syrian president repeated earlier statements and said that he was willing to hold peace negotiations with Israel in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria but stressed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't ready to be involved in the type of negotiation.
Assad discussed mediating talk that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan held between Assad and Olmert where they spoke about the line of withdrawal: "He said that the line of withdrawal should be based on the six points that Syria mentioned. I said no, these points are on the line. Then he came back saying 'the line will depend on those points'. And I said what does it mean "depend" and "based"? These are very loose words. It is on the line.
"So he told Erdogan 'ok; let me think, it is difficult for me, I'll think about it back in Israel and will let you know'. That was four days before attacking Gaza. After that Syria, and especially Turkey, went crazy because Olmert deceived them. He told them 'I am going back to Israel to think about how to solve this peace issue', but he went to war instead.
"That is how close we were. Indeed we were very close to form this paper I talked about, we were very close to defining the reference that would be given to the US... But it all went in a different way."
Assad added that it was still possible to renew the peace process. "It is not dead because you do not have any other option. If you want to talk about a 'dead peace process,' this means everybody should prepare for the next war, and this is something that is not in our interest or in the interest of the region.
"And I think that Israel learned the lesson of 2006: a super power in the Middle East could not defeat a small faction, with all the armament that they can have." Technology is changing, beliefs are changing, and tactics have changed a lot. Everything is changing. But despite that, we have to believe that only peace can help us. That is why we are optimistic and this is the only way that makes us work for peace.
The Syrian president noted that if you want to talk about a comprehensive peace process, there are three main parties: "The Syrian party, which is an Arab party, the Israeli party, and the arbiter or the mediators. As for me as Syria, I can still see that I have the support of my people, which means that I have a large latitude to move in that regard.
Lieberman a problem
"But moving, in that regard, does not mean to move in any direction. You cannot tell me take the bus and go with you without knowing where I am meant to go. We do not drive in a foggy weather. This is Syria. That is why we avoid this vicious cycle and that is why we still have support."
In contrast, Assad said that the Palestinians are divided and can't make their way to peace at this point in time. "As for the Israeli party, everybody knows about this government. It is a right-wing government. It is based on the coalition between different parties including Lieberman Party, Yisrael Beiteinu, which is very right-wing. He himself said publically that as long as he is a minister he will not allow the peace with Syria to move forward."
Assad defined Lieberman as "extremely right-wing" and noted that "every American and European official acknowledged this truth". He stated that "with this government, some say it is very difficult to achieve peace and some say it is impossible to achieve peace".
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