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Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday vowed to stand by Lebanon's side against any Israeli "aggression," in an escalating war of words between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Assad made the remark to the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Beri, in Damascus, according to the official Syrian news agency, Sana.

Assad's statement followed that of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem, who last Wednesday warned that all-out war would result if Israel "starts a war in Southern Lebanon or Syria."

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to calm the war of words, telling his cabinet that Israel aspired to peace with all its neighbors, and that he was open to fresh talks with Syria.

At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu told the ministers that Israel had made peace "with Egypt and Jordan and we aspire to do so with Syria and the Palestinians. We can achieve this with two conditions: The first is that we hold negotiations without preconditions. We will not accept the notion that Israel makes major concessions in advance. We will not enter negotiations for which everything is decided in advance."

Until last Wednesday, Syria had been careful not to specifically connect the conflict in Lebanon to fighting Israel.

And while Assad stopped short of saying that Syria would attack Israel in case of war with Hezbollah, his statement, released in Syria's official media outlet, creates expectations in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon and Syria, that Syria would actively join the fight rather than just send arms to Hezbollah.

However, Prof. Eyal Zisser, head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said there was nothing new in Assad's recent statements.

"Experience of the past 40 years shows that Syria is willing to have the Palestinians and the Lebanese to fight Israel to their last drop of blood, as long as the Syrians don't have to be involved," he said.

Same old rhetoric

Zisser said Syria has always intended to help to some degree, but not to fight. "When you compare the rhetoric of past statements, there is practically no difference," he said.

Meanwhile, Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal said Sunday that Syria is ready to respond to Israeli "aggression." Speaking at a seminar near the border with the Golan Heights, Bilal said his country "would stand in the face of Israeli ambitions," and that the Golan Heights "will not remain under occupation."

According to Bilal, Syria is "working tirelessly toward true and lasting just peace, in which the occupation ends and the land is returned," dismissing Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights as "worthless."

Meanwhile, the leader of Lebanon's Maronite Christians, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, said recently that the possibility of war exists as long as Hezbollah continues to try to take on the role of the state. "The party that has the weapons tries to force itself on the others," he said in a newspaper interview.