Syria Wants Dialogue with U.S. Without Preconditions

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in remarks broadcast Monday that he wants a dialogue with the United States but there should be no preconditions by the Obama administration.

Assad told Lebanon's Al-Manar TV that the new American administration sent officials close to it to Damascus, Syria's capital, to start such a dialogue. He did not name them but said they visited before President Barack Obama took office on Jan. 20.

Syrian-U.S. relations deteriorated sharply during the administration of former President George W. Bush, which accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq. Syria denied doing so, while saying it was impossible to control its long desert border with Iraq.

Washington also pulled its ambassador out of Syria after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus was widely accused of being involved in the killing but has denied the accusation.

In his inaugural address a week ago, Obama signaled a readiness to reach out to America's foes if they were willing, as he put it, to unclench their fists.

In the past, the U.S. has demanded that Syria end its support to militant organizations such as the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

"If there are going to be conditions, then there will be no dialogue. They know that," Assad told the Lebanese TV station, which is run by Hezbollah.

Assad said Syria recognized a desire by the new administration to explore prospects for Arab-Israeli peace as well as the situation in Iraq.

"We have positive indicators but we have learned to be cautious and not to count on these indicators as long as there isn't anything tangible," Assad said. "I believe that the dialogue began seriously weeks ago through officials close to the administration. They were sent by the administration for dialogue with Syria."

Asked if the region is heading toward wars or settlements, Assad said "we see hope of settlements and not wars after the departure of the (Bush) administration that adopted pre-emptive war as a policy, which is a principle of war only. Now there is an administration that rejects this principle."

A day after Obama took office, Assad sent him a letter saying that Syria was looking forward to "fruitful dialogue" with the United states based on "mutual interests and mutual respect" that leads to a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

On peace talks with Israel, Assad said that whoever wins Israel's Feb. 10 election will have to withdraw from all Syrian territories captured more than three decades ago.

Syria and Israel held direct talks in the late 1990s and early 2000 but negotiations broke down over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Syria insists on the complete return of the Golan Heights, while Israel wants to keep a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee. "This is something we will never abandon," Assad said.

Syria and Israel held four rounds of indirect talks mediated by Turkey in 2008, but the discussions made no significant headway and it is not clear when they might resume. Syria suspended those talks in response to Israel's three-week assault on the Gaza Strip.