- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

CAIRO — Syrian 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.

However, in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired yesterday, Mr. Assad said he wasn’t optimistic that President Bush would seize the opportunity and talk to Damascus.

He said the Bush administration does not have the vision to bring peace in Iraq.

“This administration is not willing to achieve peace; they don’t have the will, and they don’t have the vision,” Mr. Assad said in the interview from Damascus.

In contrast, he praised Mr. Bush’s father, who sponsored a 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference that included Syria. Mr. Assad said the first President Bush had the “will to achieve peace.”

The interview was the strongest attempt yet by Mr. Assad to overcome President Bush’s rejection of dialogue with Damascus over Iraq. Syria has been trying to break its international isolation and win a resumption of peace talks with Israel, with the ultimate hope of getting back the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.

Mr. Bush has stepped up criticism of Syria, accusing it of fueling the crises in Iraq and Lebanon. In recent weeks, Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government also has increasingly spoken out against Syria, accusing it of harboring fugitives who finance and support the Sunni insurgency.

Mr. Assad said Syria could play an important role in Iraq, contending it has the trust of all sides, including those who “oppose [Iraq’s] political process” — a reference to Sunni insurgents.

“We’re not the only player; we’re not the single player. But we are the main player in this issue,” he said. “Our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with support from the other parties, like the Americans and any other country in the world. So that’s how we can stop the violence.”

Mr. Assad said the Syrians were not optimistic that the Bush administration would pursue diplomatic contacts despite pressure from Congress to do so.

“After nearly four years of occupation, [the Americans] haven’t learned their lesson; they haven’t started the dialogue,” he said.

“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 toward civil war. So maybe [this is] the last chance that we have now to start.”

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 Shi’ite 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 21,500 more U.S. troops mostly to Baghdad for a major security crackdown.

Mr. Assad criticized Washington for trying to solve the Iraqi crisis with more troops. “They only talk about troops and power, not about the political process,” he said.

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