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A New Partner In Syria?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008; Page A11

DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar al-Assad says he doesn't want to send a message to Barack Obama, exactly, but to express a three-part hope for the incoming administration's Middle East policy:

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First, he hopes Obama won't start "another war anywhere in the world, especially not in the Middle East." And he trusts that the doctrine of "preemptive war" will end when George W. Bush leaves office.

Second, Assad said, "We would like to see this new administration sincerely involved in the peace process." He hopes that Obama will back Syria's indirect negotiations with Israel, and he urges the new administration to pursue "the Lebanese track and the Palestinian track, as well."

Asked whether he would mind if the Syrian track went first (a sequence that has worried some Syrians who prefer the ideological purity of following the Palestinians), Assad answered: "Of course not. Each track will help the other."

Third, he says he wants Syria and the United States to work together to stabilize Iraq as American troops begin to leave. "We can't turn the clock back," Assad said. "The war happened. Now we have to talk about the future. We have to forge a process, a political vision and a timetable for withdrawal."

In all three "hopes," Assad seemed to be looking for a new start with Obama after years of chilly relations with Bush. Assad said he knew little about Obama or his policies but has heard that he is more in contact with ordinary people than Bush has been, which, Assad contended, would give Obama a better understanding of America.

Assad spoke in English during the 30-minute interview Monday. He was accompanied only by his political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. This time, in contrast to my interview with him in 2003, when Assad was often stiff and doctrinaire, he was loose and informal, breaking several times into laughter.

Assad's easy demeanor suggested that he's more firmly in charge now. The Bush administration's attempt to isolate Syria has failed, even in the judgment of senior White House officials. That leaves Assad in the catbird seat, courted by European and Arab nations and conducting back-channel talks through Turkey with his erstwhile enemy Israel.

Asked, for example, about reports that Saudi Arabia is seeking to improve its relations with Damascus because it sees U.S. engagement with Syria ahead and fears that "the train may be leaving the station," Assad laughed.

"Maybe it has already left the station," he said. But he vows that he is ready to receive any emissaries. "I have no problem with the Saudis. We would like good relations with every country in this region."

Assad said that he is ready to move to direct talks with Israel as soon as he receives clarification on two points: One, he wants assurance that the Israelis will withdraw fully from the Golan Heights. To clarify that issue, he sent a "borders document" to the Israelis this month that highlights some points along the pre-1967 border. As of Monday, he said, he hadn't received an Israeli response. His second condition for direct talks is that the United States join as a sponsor.

On the crucial question of Syria's future relations with Iran, Assad was noncommittal. He said the relationship with Iran wasn't about the "kind of statehood" Syria has or its cultural affinities but about protecting Syrian interests against hostile neighbors. "It's about who plays a role in this region, who supports my rights," he said. "It's not that complicated."

Asked whether Syria was prepared to restrain Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, Assad said this was a matter the Israelis should sort out in separate negotiations with the Lebanese. Indeed, he promoted the idea of the other negotiating tracks -- which would draw in, at least indirectly, Hezbollah and Hamas.

"The longer the border, the bigger the peace," Assad said. "Hezbollah is on the Lebanese border, not Syrian. Hamas is on the Palestinian border. . . . They should look at those other tracks. They should be comprehensive. If you want peace, you need three peace treaties, on three tracks."

A relaxed Assad clearly believes that Syria is emerging from its pariah status. An international tribunal is still scheduled to meet in The Hague to weigh Syria's alleged role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. But in the meantime, Assad is receiving a stream of visiting diplomats. He looks like a ready partner for Obama's diplomacy, but a cautious one -- waiting to see what's on offer before he shows more of his hand.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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