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Syrian Leader Says Peace With Israel May Be Possible

An Arabic newspaper quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying he may agree to sign a peace deal with Israel, but the two countries will not have fully normal relations unless the Jewish state also makes peace with the Palestinians.

In an interview with the United Arab Emirates newspaper "Al-Khaleej," Mr. Assad said he can envision Syria and Israel exchanging embassies, but "there is a difference between a peace agreement and peace itself."

The Syrian leader said "a peace agreement is a signed piece of paper" but does not mean open borders, trade or normal relations. He said it will be impossible to have a "comprehensive peace" that will be accepted by the Syrian people without also resolving the Palestinian situation.

He called on Palestinian negotiators to coordinate with Syria over their own peace talks with Israel so the two issues will not be separated.

Last year, Turkey mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria. They had previously held direct negotiations, but those stalled in 2000.

Damascus wants Israel to return the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau the Jewish state captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel wants Syria to cut ties with Iran and militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas.

A senior U.S. senator who met with Mr. Assad in Damascus last month said the Syrian leader would like the United States to join the peace discussions. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. should play a role in the peace talks if it helps move the process forward.

In the same interview, Mr. Assad told the newspaper that Syria has constructed new buildings on the site bombed by Israeli warplanes two years ago. U.S. officials have said they believe Syria was building a nuclear reactor on the site, known as al-Kibar.

The Syrian president denied this. He questioned the results of United Nations tests that found traces of man-made uranium at the location, saying a nuclear facility still under construction would not have uranium yet.

Mr. Assad said Washington had only provided evidence supporting its allegations "eight months later," and asked why genuine evidence would have taken so long.

Last month, diplomats at the U.N. nuclear agency said Syria has built a missile facility on the al-Kibar site.

Syria says the structures bombed at al-Kibar were a conventional military facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency said last year that al-Kibar had "features" characteristic of a nuclear site.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.