Syrian president says he could help in Iraq
CAIRO, Egypt – Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview aired Monday that the Bush administration does not have the vision to bring peace in Iraq and that his country could help calm the crisis if approached.Assad told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that U.S.-Syrian cooperation was the “last chance” to avert a civil war in Iraq – but he said he wasn’t optimistic that President Bush would seize the opportunity and talk to Damascus.”This (Bush) administration is not willing to achieve peace, they don’t have the will and they don’t have the vision,” Assad said in the interview in Damascus.In contrast, he praised Bush’s father, who sponsored a 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference that included Syria. Assad said George H.W. Bush had the “will to achieve peace.”The interview was the strongest attempt yet by Assad to overcome President Bush’s rejection of dialogue with Damascus over Iraq. Syria has been trying to break its international isolation and win a resumption of peace talks with Israel, with the ultimate hope of getting back the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.Bush has stepped up criticism of Syria, accusing it of fueling the crises in Iraq and Lebanon. In recent weeks, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has also increasingly spoken out against Syria for allegedly harboring fugitives who finance and support the Sunni insurgency. The government has also accused Syria of turning back Iraqis trying to flee the country and threatening to deport those already living there.Assad told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that Syria could play an important role in Iraq, contending it has the trust of all sides, including those who “oppose (Iraq’s) political process” – a reference to Sunni insurgents.”We’re not the only player, we’re not the single player. But we are the main player in this issue,” he said. “Our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with support from the other parties, like the Americans and any other country in the world. So that’s how we can stop the violence.”Assad said the Syrians were not optimistic that the Bush administration would pursue diplomatic contacts despite pressure from Congress to do so.”We are hearing, but we don’t expect that much,” Assad said of the Americans. “After nearly four years of occupation, they haven’t learned their lesson, they haven’t started the dialogue,””I think it’s too late for them to move toward that. It doesn’t mean we can’t turn the tide. But (it may be) too late because Iraqis are heading toward civil war. So maybe (this is) the last chance that we have now to start.”The U.S. bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended in December that the Bush administration make diplomatic overtures to Syria and Iran to use their influence with Sunni and Shiite extremist groups to curb the violence and prevent the conflict from spilling over into the rest of the Middle East.But the White House rejected the recommendation, instead deciding to send 21,500 more U.S. troops mostly to Baghdad for a major security crackdown. The first units, from the 82nd Airborne Division, have arrived in the capital and the rest are due in Iraq by May.Bush has also taken a more confrontational stance against Iran, vowing to act against Tehran’s operatives in Iraq and beefing up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.During the interview, Assad criticized Washington for trying to solve the Iraqi crisis with more troops.He said the Americans shared the blame for the chaos “because they’re responsible for the political situation.” That appeared to refer to a U.S. policy early in the occupation favoring the Shiite majority over Sunnis, who were dominant during Saddam Hussein’s regime.”They only talk about troops and power, not about the political process,” Assad said.Assad urged the U.S. to “stop looking for scapegoats and whipping boys,” rejecting criticism that his government allows Sunni insurgents to move back and forth across its border with Iraq.He insisted that Syria, Iran and other regional powers have a stake in bringing peace to Iraq.”So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria and to other countries. So saying this, like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest, this is impossible,” he said.