Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo by AP
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Syria's president has accused the United States of sowing chaos overseas, snubbing Washington's efforts to improve ties with Damascus.

Bashar Assad told Al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that the U.S. created chaos in every place it entered.

"Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?" Assad asked, referring to U.S. intervention in Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

In Washington, the State Department issued a strong rebuttal. Spokesman P.J. Crowley charged that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon by supplying arms to militants and issuing arrest warrants for Lebanese officials.

"These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon's sovereignty and directly undermine Syria's stated commitments to Lebanon's sovereignty and independence," Crowley said. We believe we're playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.

The tough retort appeared to run counter to U.S. efforts to improve ties with Syria.

President Barack Obama has made repeated overtures to Damascus this year, nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with Assad. Obama is trying to lure Damascus away from its alliance with Iran and militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

But Syria has continued to strengthen ties with outspoken critics of Washington, such as Iran and Venezuela.

In Tuesday's interview, Assad also warned that expected indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could destroy Lebanon.

Assad said Lebanon is divided on a sectarian basis and that indictments in the case could rip the country apart.

"Any clash at any time between any group will sabotage Lebanon and destroy it," he said.

A massive truck bombing in Beirut killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005. A United Nations tribunal is investigating the case but has not indicted anyone.

Immediately after the killing, suspicion fell on neighboring Syria because Hariri had sought to weaken its domination of Lebanon. Syria has denied any role in the murder.

The killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and sparked huge street demonstrations that helped end Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon. This paved the way for pro-Western parties to head the government in subsequent elections.

Many expect the tribunal to indict members of Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Shiite militia that now shares power in a fragile unity government with a Western-backed coalition.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said he expects the tribunal to indict members of his group. He vows not to hand them over for prosecution.

Many fear that indictments of Hezbollah members could trigger violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.