NOTE: TRANSLATION AFTER JUMP
President Obama “has shown himself to be a man of his words,” Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad told the Italian center-left newspaper La Repubblica. Syria is open to mediate between the West and Iran, he added.
Earlier this month the Obama administration sent a senior diplomatic envoy to Damascus, hoping to find common ground on “a number of issues,” which probably included Syria’s diplomacy with Israel, its role in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and its relationship with Iran.
The United Sates has long tried to increase Iran’s political isolation in the region by driving a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. Assad, though, is playing his cards carefully.
On March 17, Syria’s foreign minister was behind the microphones gushing over Syria’s “excellent” relationship with Iran. The day after, Assad told Italian journalists that he hopes to meet president Obama “to talk.”
By seeking to position itself as a mediator, Syria seems intent on preserving the alliance with Tehran without wasting an opportunity to warm up to Washington.
Here is my translation of excerpts of Assad’s interview (here’s the original in Italian):
On President Obama
“With the withdrawal from Iraq, a commitment to peace, the closing of Guantanamo, [President Obama] has shown himself to be a man of his words. If this will be a historical turning point, though, it’s too soon to tell. This is for sure: after the night-like years of the Bush administration, we have reason to hope again.”
“First, I would like to make it clear that countries act according to national interests. That said, if we want to calculate American and Syrian interests, well, I can say that 80 percent of them coincide, and I give myself a 20 percent safety margin…An example? Here’s the first one: Iraq. The U.S. pullout takes away the main issue at the center of our differences with Washington, that is, the [U.S.] occupation of that country… We can work together for the stability of Iraq, without which the pullout cannot succeed.”
“A meeting [with Obama]? Yes, in principle, it would be a very positive sign; though I’m not looking for a photo opportunity. I hope to see him – to talk.”
“With Iran, I stand ready to mediate.”
“When talking about Iran’s influence in Iraq we ought to make a distinction: Influence is not a negative when it is based on reciprocal respect. Interference is another thing. Rather, if we are talking about facilitating the dialogue with Iran, we need a concrete proposal to submit to that government. For now, I’ve only received an invitation to play a certain role. And that’s fine, but it is not enough: There are still no plans, rules, specific mechanisms to submit to Tehran.”
“We have been inches away from sealing an agreement with Israel.”
“I see the goal [of renewed negotiations] becoming more distant. I’m not worried at the thought of Netanyahu, but of a turn to the right by the Israel society, which Netanyahu’s ascent to power mirrors. Here’s the biggest obstacle to peace.”
“Only Washington can put pressure on Israel.”
On Democratic Progress in Syria
“The pace of reform has slowed down a lot, it’s true, but it has not come to a halt. Now that external pressures have diminished, it will go forth, for example adding a freely elected Senate to the Parliament, to make room for the opposition; increasingly liberalizing the media and the Internet and, after that, political parties, through an appropriate law. However, everything must proceed gradually, at our own pace.”