Syria's Assad says he is 'open' to dialogue with the United States



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BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad says he would be "open" to a dialogue with the United States, but that it must be "based on mutual respect."

Assad made the remarks in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News' 60 Minutes. A short excerpt of the interview was posted online late Thursday.

In the clip, Assad said that, in principle, "every dialogue is a positive thing, and we are going to be open to any dialogue with anyone, including the United States." He said there is no direct communication so far with Washington.

Assad's comments come after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier this month that the U.S. must eventually talk with the Syrian government to help broker an end to the country's civil war. The Obama administration later reiterated its position that Assad has no future role in Syria.

"I would say what we have in Syria so far is only a statement, nothing concrete yet, no facts, no new reality regarding the political approach of the United States toward our situation, our problem, our conflict in Syria," Assad said in the interview.

Washington has long pushed for a negotiated political settlement to Syria's conflict, which has killed more than 220,000 people and wounded 1 million. The U.S. helped coax Assad's government and its opponents to the negotiating table early last year, although those talks then collapsed after two rounds without making progress.

Since Syria's uprising began in March 2011, Assad's government has publicly supported international diplomatic efforts to ease or resolve the conflict, while simultaneously ignoring commitments it has made under brokered agreements.

In a separate interview with a group of Russian journalists, Assad lauded a Russian initiative to nurture talks between Syrian government representatives and the opposition in Moscow.

A first round of talks in Moscow in January made no headway. The main-Western backed opposition Syrian Nation Coalition shunned the meeting because it did not aim to remove Assad from power. The Coalition has said it will skip a second round of talks scheduled for next month.

"In order for this dialogue to succeed, it should be purely Syrian," Assad said, according to a transcript of the round table published Friday by the state SANA news agency. "In other words, there shouldn't be any outside influence on the participants in this dialogue."

Russia is a close ally of Assad, and has provided diplomatic support and weaponry to help the Syrian leader maintain his grip on power. Moscow also maintains a small naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartous.

Asked about his country's ties with Moscow and the possibility of turning the Tartous facility into a full-fledged Russian military base, Assad said he would "welcome any expansion of the Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean and specifically on the Syrian shores and in Syrian ports."

"As far as we are concerned, the stronger this presence is in our region, the better it is for the region's stability, because the Russian role is important for the stability of the world," Assad said.

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