President Bashar Assad said cooperation — and negotiations — between Syria and the United States could be the “last chance” to avoid full-scale civil war in Iraq.
Assad criticized President Bush, saying his administration does not have the “vision” to bring peace in Iraq. In the interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” Assad praised Bush’s father, saying the elder Bush had the “will to achieve the peace in the region.”
Assad said Syria could help negotiate among Iraq’s factions.
“We’re not the only player, not the single player. But we are the main player in this issue,” Assad said. “So that’s how we can stop the violence.”
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended in December that the Bush administration make diplomatic overtures to Syria and Iran to use their influence with Sunni and Shiite extremist groups to curb the violence and prevent the conflict from spilling over into the rest of the Middle East.
But the White House rejected the recommendation, instead deciding to send another 21,500 U.S. troops mostly to Baghdad for a major security crackdown — the third in a year.
Assad said the Syrians were not optimistic that the Bush administration would pursue diplomatic contacts despite pressure from Congress to do so.
“I think it’s too late for them to move toward that. It doesn’t mean we can’t turn the tide. But (it may be) too late because Iraqis are heading towards civil war. So maybe (this is) the last chance that we have now to start.”
Damascus charged with harboring fugitives
Assad insisted that Syria had good relations with all the Iraqi parties.
In recent weeks, however, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has become increasingly critical of Syria for allegedly harboring fugitives who finance and support the Sunni insurgency. The government has also accused Syria of turning back Iraqis trying to flee the country and threatening to deport those already living there.
The strident attacks are similar to those leveled by the United States against Iran for allegedly supplying Shiite militias with training, weapons and money. The Iraqi government has so far refrained from criticizing Shiite-led Iran.
Assad insisted that Syria, Iran and other regional powers have a stake in bringing peace to Iraq.
“So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria and to other countries. So saying this, like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest, this is impossible,” he said.
During the interview, Assad also criticized Washington for trying to solve the Iraqi crisis through more troops.
He said the Americans shared the blame for the chaos “because they’re responsible for the political situation.” That appeared to refer to a U.S. policy early in the occupation favoring the Shiite majority over Sunnis, who were dominant during the Saddam Hussein regime.
“They only talk about troops and power, not about the political process,” Assad said.