Syrian President Bashar Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad Photo by AP
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Syrian President Bashar Assad said Monday that the United States has lost its influence in the Middle East due to its failure to contribute to regional peace, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

U.S. President Barack Obama "raised hopes" in the region, said Assad, but has failed to accomplish any significant peace maneuvers.

Assad's comments came just before Obama was to meet with Lebanon Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri to raise Washington's concerns about Syria arming Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

The Syrian leader met on Sunday with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Damascus earlier Sunday and urged the West to "break its silence" in the face of Israeli "aggression" in the Middle East.

During their talks, Assad denounced "the ongoing Israeli threats to ignite wars and undermine the stability in the region."

"The region has changed and the West's policy in the area is no longer acceptable, keeping silent over Israeli violations is no longer acceptable," Assad told Kouchner, according to Syria's official news agency SANA.

"If the West wants security and stability to be established in the Middle East, [it] must start to play an effective role to contain Israel and put an end to its extremist policies," Assad said.

The Syrian president also told Kouchner that the Western countries pushing for harsh United Nations sanctions against Iran should understand that Tehran's contentious nuclear program was aimed at civilian and not military pursuits, according to SANA.

"The countries involved need to change their attitude to Iran's civil nuclear program, because this agreement is an important opportunity to reach a diplomatic solution and prevent a tragic dispute in the region and the world at large," said Assad.

Also Sunday, Syria defied Western pressure over its support for the militant group Hezbollah and said it would not act as a policeman for Israel to prevent weapons from reaching the Lebanese Shi'ite movement.

"Did Israel ever stop arming itself, did it stop instigating violence or making military maneuvers," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after meeting his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. "Why are arms forbidden to Arabs and allowed to Israel?"

Citing Israeli occupation of Arab land and the technical state of war between Syria and Israel, Moualem said the Damascus government "will not be a policeman for Israel".

"Israel is beating the drum of war. In the absence of real peace every thing is possible," he added.

Syria, a country Washington says is critical for Middle East peace, has shown no signs of withdrawing backing for Hezbollah, which is also supported by Iran, although the issue has clouded rapprochement between Damascus and Washington.

The row intensified when President Shimon Peres last month accused Syria, which borders Lebanon, of sending long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah.

Syria said it only gives Hezbollah political backing and that Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike.

"A Scud missile is as big as this room. How could it be hidden and smuggled with Israeli planes and satellites all over the region?" Moallem asked, adding that cumbersome Scuds were not suited to Hezbollah's guerrilla tactics.