Assad says Syria ready for peace talks if 'impartial arbiter' found
Syrian President says ready for peace talks if 'impartial arbiter' found, accuses West of making Syria 'scapegoat.'
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC he is ready for talks with Israel but queries whether the current Israeli government has the strength to move towards peace and if the United States has the will to help.
In a wide-ranging interview broadcast on Monday night, Assad also denied that Syria helped arm Hezbollah militants - who fought Israel in Lebanon during a 34-day war in July and August - but said it had offered political support.
At the same time, the Syrian leader said he was prepared to work with the international community to prevent new weapons from reaching the militant Shi'ite movement.
He said Syria would be prepared to hold talks with Israel provided that "an impartial arbiter" could be found.
Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight program, Assad said he was prepared to pursue negotiations with Israel but both sides had to move in the same direction.
"It is the time, especially after war ... but that doesn't mean you have the environment to achieve it," he told BBC's diplomatic editor, John Simpson, in the interview.
"How can you talk about peace and at the same time isolation? How can you talk about peace and you adopt the doctrine of pre-emptive war?" he asked.
Assad said he was waiting to hear whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was also willing to talk, but warned: "We don't know if this government is strong enough to move towards peace." Olmert has suffered a plunge in popularity over his performance during the Lebanon war.
Assad continued: "So the first question (is): can they and do they have the will? The other question is: the decision for peace now is not in Israel, it's in Washington."
Washington, with the United Nations and the European Union providing support, had to play the role of arbiter, he said.
"So far the United States doesn't have the will to play this role. It doesn't have the vision."
Syria, regarded as a state-sponsor of terrorism by the United States, seeks the return of the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. But peace talks between the two countries broke down in 2000.
Turning to Syria's relationship with Hezbollah, the president said it was wrong to label them as terrorists while the movement had public support.
Asked whether he allowed Hezbollah to take weapons from Syria, Assad said: "No," while adding: "Politically, we did help them politically."
Assad said he supported a United Nations resolution to stop Hezbollah from accessing new arms, saying: "We're going to support it in order not to have another war."
On other topics, the Syrian president reiterated his government's denial at having anything to do with the 2005 killing of then Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
He also insisted Syria tried its best to stop militants from crossing its border into Iraq to carry out attacks.
"But anyway now Iraq has been transfigured into a nexus for terrorism. So nobody can stop it. But we don't allow it, we don't support it."
The Syrian president also accused the West of being "too ready" to make Syria a "scapegoat" for the problems in the Middle East.
The reality and the perception of his country were two different things but it suited the outside world to point the finger at Syria, Assad said in the interview conducted in Damascus.
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