Syrian leader: Mideast talks only to help Obama

Date: 10/2/2010

TEHRAN, Iran – Syrian President Bashar Assad offered dim hopes Saturday for any success in Middle East peace talks, saying the White House is only using its mediation between Israelis and Palestinians to score political points in the United States.

The comments by Assad – making a one–day visit to Tehran – followed talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is one of Israel's arch–foes. Both leaders pledged to support "resistance" in the region, an apparent reference to Palestinian militants and others opposing Israel.

The trip came two weeks after Ahmadinejad traveled to Syria, signaling Iran's concerns about U.S. efforts to pry Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran.

Iran and Syria are both key sponsors of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is not part of the peace talks.

Assad said the current attempt at dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians have brought "no change" and claimed that President Barack Obama only seeks a political boost.

"The talks are only aimed at supporting Obama's position inside the U.S," Assad said in his first public comments about the process since the latest round of negotiations began last month.

The peace talks are in danger of collapse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to quit negotiations if Israel does not extend a slowdown on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes an extension to the 10–month–old moratorium on new housing starts that expired a week ago.

Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al–Moallem told the Wall Street Journal that he believed a comprehensive Arab–Israeli peace would be doomed without Israel's commitment to first freeze any new construction in disputed territories.

But Syria–based radical Palestinian factions condemned the Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not represent all the Palestinian people and called on him to stop the talks.

Iranian state TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying he and Assad agreed on the need to "expand resistance" in the region.

Assad also was awarded Iran's highest national medal for his support to Palestinian militants and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"The Syrian government and nation, at the forefront of resistance, have for years stood up against the expansionism and aggression of the Zionist regime," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

Assad, meanwhile, said the "strategic relationship" between Tehran and Damascus "is necessary for the independence and the stability of the Middle East."

Assad's talks in Iran also are expected to touch on the effects of international sanctions on Tehran and the political struggles in neighboring Iraq.

Syria and Iran wield considerable influence in Iraq among different groups – Syria with Sunnis and Iran among Shiites. Iraq has been locked in political stalemate since March elections, but Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki appears close to winning support to remain in power.

Iran and Syria have had close political and economic ties over the past decades. Assad has visited Iran eight times since 2000. Last month, Ahmadinejad made a brief stop in Damascus en route to New York to attend the U.N General Assembly.


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