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Syria sees no Israel peace before Bush quits

7/07/2008 - 22:55

PARIS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told a newspaper his country is unlikely to make peace with Israel while U.S. President George W. Bush remains in office.

However, in an interview published on the website of LeFigaro daily on Monday, Assad said he was betting that the nextU.S. leader would get more involved in the peace process.

Assad said Syria and Israel were looking for common groundto start face-to-face negotiations, adding that it was vital tofind the right country to mediate such talks.

"The most important thing in direct negotiations is whosponsors them," Assad told Le Figaro, saying that the UnitedStates had an essential role to play.

"Frankly, we do not think that the current Americanadministration is capable of making peace. It doesn't haveeither the will or the vision and it only has a few monthsleft," he said.

"When we have established a common foundation (fornegotiations) at indirect talks with Israel, perhaps we couldgive some trump cards to the new administration to make it getmore involved," he added.

"We are betting on the next president and hisadministration. We hope that it will be rather an advantage tohave a change of president in the United States," he said.

The next U.S. president will take office next January.

Long-time foes Syria and Israel held a third round ofindirect talks in Turkey last week and agreed to hold a fourthround in late July, a Turkish government source told Reuters.

OPENING

In a sign of improving international relations for Syria,Assad is due in Paris this weekend for a summit of European andMediterranean countries, which will also be attended by IsraeliPrime Minister Ehud Olmert.

France's own relations with Syria have been troubled byaccusations Damascus has fuelled tensions in Lebanon, but Assadsaid his trip to Paris showed the mood was changing.

"France has an important international position. This(meeting) is opening a major door on the international stagefor us," Assad said. "This is an historic visit for me, anopening towards France and towards Europe."

He said there were plans for him to meet the newly sworn-inLebanese president, Michel Suleiman, in Paris.

Suleiman was elected in May after Syria helped reach a dealmediated by Qatar to end months of political stalemate betweenLebanon's ruling coalition and an opposition alliance led byHezbollah -- a group backed by Syria and Iran.

Tensions are still high in Lebanon, but Assad indicated hewould do nothing to convince Hezbollah to disarm, saying thiswould only come when there was a broad Middle East peace deal.

He also backed Iran in its stand-off with major powers overits nuclear ambitions, saying he did not think Tehran wanted tobuild an atomic bomb.

"We are convinced Iran does not have a military nuclearproject. We are against the acquisition of nuclear weapons, beit by Iran or any other country in the region, especiallyIsrael," he added.

"It is unacceptable for Israel to have 200 nuclearwarheads," Assad said. Israel has never publicly confirmed ithas atomic weapons, but is widely assumed to be a nuclearpower.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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