Syrian President Offers Advice To President-Elect Bush

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - With anti-U.S. sentiment rising, Syrian President Bashar Assad has called on President-elect George W. Bush to revive the Mideast peace process and restore Arab confidence in the United States.

But one Israeli expert charged that Assad was more interested in keeping his options open than in revitalizing the peace process.

"Bashar is engaged in all kinds of moves not compatible with each other," said Dr. Yossi Olmert, an expert on Syrian affairs.

On the one hand he talks about "revitalizing the peace process" and meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has acted as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Olmert said.

But on the other Assad is drawing closer to Iraq and Iran, both of whom oppose a negotiated settlement between Israel and the PA.

"He is sifting through the situation and keeping his options open," said Olmert, who was directly involved in Israeli government contacts with Syria in the early 1990s.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Mubarak in Damascus, Assad advised Bush against what he called a bias toward Israel and told him he should work to implement U.N. resolutions and the principle of Israel's trading "land for peace."

"We hope the new U.S. administration will be effective in reactivating the peace process in the region, but it will have an additional duty to that of its predecessor," Assad said on Monday. "It should restore the damage and the decay that was inflicted on the peace process."

After seven years of negotiating, President Clinton is set to the leave the White House on Saturday with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemingly in shambles and the Israeli-Syrian track already deadlocked for nearly a year.

Anti-U.S. sentiments have soared in Syria and other Arab nations since September when the Palestinians launched a violent uprising.

U.S. embassies in several Arab capitals have been attacked by angry mobs and various groups have threatened boycotts of U.S. goods to protest American policy in the region.

"I believe the confidence of Arab citizens in Israel and the countries involved in the [the U.S. sponsored] peace process is worse now," Assad said. "If this administration wants to make an effective start it should restore this confidence."

In remarks published in Syria on Monday, Foreign Minister Farouk Shara blasted Clinton's proposals for bridging gaps between Israel and the PA, including the giving up of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. He rejected the idea that any of the 378,000 Palestinian refugees now residing in Syria should be settled permanently there.

Shara also he believed the Bush administration would understand the Middle East peace process better than Clinton.

In December 1999, Israelis and Syrians alike were stunned by a dramatic announcement by Clinton that their countries had agreed to resume peace negotiations, nearly four years after they had broken off.

However, the euphoria was short-lived. A month later, a U.S.-sponsored summit attended by Shara and Prime Minister Ehud Barak ended in a stalemate, and diplomacy was then frozen again when the late president, Hafez Assad, insisted that Israel hand over all of the Golan Heights, down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Despite a large public outcry against surrendering the strategic plateau, Israel had agreed to relinquish it, but stopped short at allowing the Syrians control right to the shore of Israel's primary source of drinking water.

Olmert said he believed Assad would "continue more or less as his father did," and not make any significant moves one way or another.