Assad makes peace plea at start of 2nd term

Syrian President Bashar Assad called on Israel to respond to peace overtures from Damascus after he was sworn in for a second seven-year term on Tuesday.The 41-year-old, who secured 97 per cent of the vote in a May referendum in which he was the only candidate, also vowed to pursue economic reform and to crackdown on corruption he said had spread to the highest levels.

Assad was seen as a reformer when he took office on the death of his father Hafez Assad in 2000 but is now under US pressure over its alleged role in the Lebanon and Iraq crises and a crackdown on political opponents.

“We do not want secret talks. We ask Israel’s leaders to state in a clear and official manner their desire for peace,” Assad said in a speech to parliament.

“We want Israel’s leaders to give guarantees that all of our land will be returned. We cannot enter into negotiations without knowing” what is being discussed, he added.

Direct peace talks with Israel have been frozen since January 2000. Damascus is demanding the return of the occupied Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981.

Assad, who has made repeated overtures to Israel, referred in his speech to an unspecified “third country” which has been working in recent weeks to bring the two sides closer together.

He said Syria could send an emissary to this country to meet Israelis, adding: “This is the maximum that we can do.

Israel’s top-selling Yediot Aharonot reported last month that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had secretly sent several messages to Assad via Germany and Turkey, and later Olmert invited Assad to hold direct talks.

Most of Assad’s Tuesday speech centred on domestic issues.

He said his goal was “to strengthen the state… a strong state means development and stability” and develop a “social market ecomony” allowing for private initiative while safeguarding the rights of the poor.

Assad said hundreds of decrees and laws had been introduced in order to bring about reforms in monetary and fiscal policy, as well as boosting investment, opening private banking operations and creating a stock exchange.

The president hailed an economic growth rate of what he said was at least 5 per cent in 2006 “despite difficult regional conditions.” For 2008, Assad promised further measures aimed at improving citizens’ standards of living, amid rumours of an imminent wage hike which would be the fourth since he came to power.

He also pledged effective measures to fight against corruption, which he denounced as an “obstacle to reforms.” “There is no doubt that corruption touches the highest circles of the state,” Assad said.

Assad first took office in July 2000 after the death of his father Hafez Assad, who had ruled with an iron fist for three decades. He won a referendum in May in the face of an opposition boycott which said the result was a foregone conclusion.

The Baath Party, which has ruled Syria under emergency law since it came to power in 1963, also increased its presence in parliament in April legislative elections boycotted by the opposition.

Washington has urged Syria to stop interfering in neighbouring Lebanon, which is in the grip of a paralysing political standoff between pro- and anti-Damascus factions.

The United States has also accused Syria of fomenting unrest in Iraq.

The latter years of Assad’s first term were marked by deteriorating relations with the United States which in 2004 imposed economic sanctions on Damascus over its policies towards Iraq and Lebanon.

Assad has also come under heavy international pressure since the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in Beirut, which was then under Syrian control.

That pressure led to Damascus withdrawing its forces from Lebanon two months later after a 29-year presence.

Domestically, anticipated political change — a law allowing different political parties, liberalisation of the press, and electoral reform — remains stillborn, although economic reform has made some progress.

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