- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria is entitled to defend itself by acquiring chemical and biological deterrents, President Bashar Assad said yesterday as he rejected American and British demands for concessions on weapons of mass destruction.

In his first major statement since Libya’s decision last month to scrap its nuclear and chemical programs, he came closer than ever to admitting that his country possessed stockpiles of such weapons. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mr. Assad said any deal to destroy Syria’s chemical and biological capability would come about only if Israel agreed to abandon its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Since Saddam Hussein’s capture and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to dismantle his programs, Mr. Assad has risen toward the top of America’s target list.

The White House and the British prime minister’s office have been waiting for Mr. Assad’s response to Col. Gadhafi’s appeal for other Arab leaders to follow his example or risk inflicting a “tragedy” on their people.

Mr. Assad spoke for more than 90 minutes at his discreet villa, which he prefers to the grand palace overlooking Damascus built by his father, the late Hafez Assad.

Asked about American and British claims that Syria had weapons-of-mass-destruction capability, he stopped short of the categorical denial that had been his government’s standard response.

Instead, he pointed to the Israelis’ recent attack on Palestinian bases in Syria and the occupation of the Golan Heights as evidence that Syria needed a deterrent.

“We are a country which is [partly] occupied, and from time to time, we are exposed to Israeli aggression,” he said. “It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world, and they can be obtained at any time.”

Mr. Assad said Col. Gadhafi’s surprise decision to allow international inspectors to supervise the dismantling of weapons-of-mass-destruction programs was a “correct step.”

He called on the international community to support the proposal that Syria presented to the United Nations last year for removing all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, including Israel’s nuclear stockpile.

“Unless this applies to all countries, we are wasting our time.”

Mr. Assad tempered his refusal to compromise on weapons of mass destruction by holding out the prospect of joint patrols with America along the Syria-Iraq border to prevent the passage of arms and fighters.

Acknowledging pressure from the United States and Britain to crack down on Palestinian extremists based in Syria, he said their offices had been closed and their activities curtailed. The groups could no longer “do anything military from these places. They are closed.”

Mr. Assad repeated Syria’s offer to resume negotiations with Israel over the occupation of the Golan Heights, which were interrupted when a deal was in sight nearly a decade ago.

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