Syria's Bashar al-Assad warns of Middle East conflict

"When you don't have peace you have to expect war"

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said Israel's raid on the Gaza aid flotilla has increased the chances of war in the Middle East.

In an interview with the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, he said Syria was working to prevent a regional war.

But he added that there was no chance of a peace deal with the current Israeli administration, which he called a "pyromaniac government".

Mr Assad also rejected claims he was arming Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Nine Turkish activists died during last month's raid on the Free Gaza ships attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Analysis

Jeremy Bowen

President Bashar al-Assad has the air of a man who thinks matters are going his way - even though he shares the common Middle Eastern view that the region is getting more dangerous.

Israel, the US and Britain are convinced that not only is Mr Assad arming Hezbollah, but that he is also sending bigger, better and more accurate weapons than before.

And he seems in no mood to respond to US attempts to woo him away from Syria's long-term strategic alliance with Iran.

Asked if the Israeli raid had increased the chance of war in the Middle East, Mr Assad said: "Definitely, definitely."

"When you don't have peace, you have to expect war every day, and this is very dangerous," he said.

Israel has set up an inquiry into the raid after rejecting a United Nations proposal for an international investigation, but Turkey has said that it has no confidence in the impartiality of the investigation.

"[The raid has] destroyed any chance for peace in the near future," Mr Assad said.

"Mainly because it proved that this government is another pyromaniac government, and you cannot achieve peace with such [a] government."

The current Israeli administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "different from any previous Israeli government", Mr Assad said.

He said there had been indications before the raid on the Gaza flotilla about "their intentions towards peace, their intentions towards the Palestinians, their intentions to kill Palestinians".

ISRAEL AND SYRIA

  • 1967 Israel seizes Golan Heights from Syria
  • 1981 Israel annexes Golan Heights.
  • Population of Golan grows to an estimated 20,000 Israelis and 20,000 Syrians
  • 1999 talks begin on Golan Heights in the US
  • 2000 US talks break down
  • 2008 February, Israel and Syria begin indirect talks in Turkey
  • 2008 September talks break down
  • 2010 Free Gaza flotilla stopped by Israel in international waters

Mr Assad denied that he was sending weapons to the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006.

He said he was happy to do business with the United States, but insisted that Iran would remain an ally.

And he added that Turkey, which had been mediating between Syria and Israel, was unlikely to do so now following the flotilla raid - unless the Israeli government changed.

"The Turks never attacked Israel, never smuggled weapons, never did anything harmful to Israel. They only worked for peace," he said.

Syria had been in indirect talks with the former Israeli government of Ehud Olmert in 2008 until Mr Olmert resigned, facing corruption charges.

In recent months US foreign policy worked on the assumption that persuading Syria to come on board with them would be a piece of "low-hanging fruit" in the region, our correspondent says.

But now it is becoming apparent that gaining the support of Syria to help fix the Middle East peace process will not be easy at all, he adds.

The US has offered to drop five year-long sanctions against Syria in return for Syria dropping its ties with regional ally Iran.

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