BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed Monday that Israeli warplanes attacked a target inside his country last month and didn’t just intrude into its air space, but he said the jets hit only an “unused military building.”
It wasn’t clear if Assad explicitly denied during an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. the claims from current and former U.S. officials that the Sept. 6 incident was an attack on either a nuclear or missile facility that Syria operated jointly with North Korea.
The BBC’s Web site did not include video of that part of the interview. It quoted Assad only as saying the attack was on an “unused military building.” Lower level officials in his government previously denied Syria had any targets like those claimed by the Americans.
North Korea also denied being involved in any such activities in Syria, and both countries accused U.S. officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons.
At the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the General Assembly’s ministerial meeting that “sources in the United States” are fabricating rumors about the airstrike’s target as a way to help Israel.
Al-Moallem warned that a failure by the U.N. Security Council and international community to condemn “this act of aggression would encourage Israel to persist in this hostile pursuit, and lead to an exacerbation of tensions in the region.”
Assad’s comments were his first about the mysterious Sept. 6 incident. Israel has said nothing about it, while Syrian officials had said only that Israeli warplanes entered their nation’s air space, came under fire and fled.
Assad said his government reserved the right to retaliate for the airstrike, but also said his country was not about to attack Israel, suggesting he did not want to hurt chances at peace talks with the Jewish state.
But Assad made clear Syria would not attend a U.S.-sponsored international peace conference on the Middle East if it did not address Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war.
Assad said the air raid on northern Syria last month showed Israel’s “visceral antipathy towards peace,” according to excerpts posted on the BBC’s Web site.
“Retaliate doesn’t mean missile for missile and bomb for bomb,” he told the BBC in an interview in Damascus, Syria. “We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways. But we have the right to retaliate in different means.”
Asked if Syria was rearming and strengthening its missile capabilities, Assad said, “This is very normal and self-evident that we’re going to prepare ourselves for that.”
The Syrian leader said his government needs to know details of the international peace conference planned in the United States before it decides whether to participate.
“This conference or any conference is going to be an opportunity but it should be purposeful. It should be substantive,” Assad said. “I don’t see where is the purpose and what is the substance of this conference. What are they going to talk about?”
He made clear that Syria’s concerns need to be addressed, primarily its demand for the return of the Golan Heights.
“If they don’t talk about the Syrian occupied territory, no, there’s no way for Syria to go there. It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn’t go, we wouldn’t go,” Assad said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that key Arab nations, including Syria, will be invited to the conference, which is expected to be held in November. The meeting is intended to provide the foundation for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.