BBC interview with Bashar Al-Assad
Click here to watch John Simpson's interview with Syria's President in Damascus.
Two things struck me - how good Bashar's English is. And how gentle he is. This is no brutal dictator - there's almost a comical moment when Simpson asks "are you a dictator?". Watch and make up your own mind.
Two printed stories from the BBC too:
Syria: US lacks Mid-East vision
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the United States does not have "the will or vision" to pursue peace in the Middle East.
In a BBC interview, President Assad said Syria was prepared to hold talks with Israel but he said there needed to be "an impartial arbiter".
He said there was no sign the Americans were prepared to play this role.
President Assad acknowledged Syria and Israel could live side-by-side in peace accepting each other's existence.
The current US administration has said Syria is a member of what it has called an axis of evil.
President Assad suggested President Bush could not be an impartial umpire and said no direct dialogue had taken place between the two nations.
"How can you talk about peace and at the same time isolation? How can you talk about peace and you adopt the doctrine of pre-emptive war?" he asked.
The implementation of UN resolutions by all parties - Syria, Israel, America, the UN and EU - was the only way to achieve peace, Mr Assad said.
Pointing the finger
In the wide-ranging interview, the Syrian president said the West was too ready to blame Syria for problems in the Middle East.
He said the reality and the perception of his country were two different things but that it suited the outside world to point the finger at Syria.
Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Assad said the West had accused Syria of supporting terrorism to make it "a scapegoat" and to "absolve themselves from any responsibility".
Washington has also accused Syria of backing Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, organisations it views as a terrorist groups. However, President Assad said public support for such groups had to be taken into account.
"As long as they [Hezbollah] are effective on the ground among the people you have to deal with them.
"When they have the support of the people you cannot label them as terrorists because this way you label the people as terrorists," he said.
As far as Iraq is concerned, he insisted that Syria did not support any insurgent attacks, but added that "as a concept" resistance was the right of the people.
Syria has also been accused of allowing insurgents to pass across the border with Iraq, but President Assad said the accusations were untrue.
Syrian president's patient wait for peace
By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News
Mr Assad does not have to worry about troublesome elections
For a man who has just been pointedly ignored by Condoleezza Rice on her latest Middle East tour, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seems remarkably relaxed.
From his point of view, the dangers are a great deal less nowadays.
Because Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah during its attacks on Lebanon this summer, Hezbollah's backer Syria no longer fears an Israeli attack.
And there seems no chance that the United States, weakened by its own failures in Iraq, and distracted by its confrontations with Iran and North Korea, will do anything against Syria.
President Assad has another major advantage: he can play the long game. His father, whom he succeeded in 2000, was effectively president-for-life. He himself does not have to worry too much about troublesome elections.
So when I went to the immense presidential complex on the edge of Damascus to interview him, I found him relaxed, thoughtful and willing to wait a long time for the right moment to make peace with Israel.
He clearly feels the present Israeli government has been too weakened to be able to make a lasting peace agreement.
But anyway he knows nothing can happen without Washington; and he is scathing about what he regards as President Bush's inability to forge a Middle East peace.
"So far", he said, "the United States doesn't have the will to play this role, and it doesn't have the vision towards peace. Of course," he went on, "it doesn't have vision towards Iraq, it doesn't have vision towards terrorism and many other issues."
Implicitly, therefore, he rules out any chance of a comprehensive peace agreement until President Bush has left office and his successor has had time to settle in. So from the Syrian perspective we could be talking about 2009 or even later.
President Assad says he has put out peace-feelers to Israel already. Ehud Olmert, Israel's embattled prime minister, has rejected them; but other leading Israeli politicians think it might be necessary to talk to Syria.
I suggested to President Assad that Israel would be more likely to respond favourably if Syria cut its ties with movements and regimes which sought Israel's destruction. He defended his links with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, but insisted he did not want to see Israel wiped off the map.
When I asked him if Syria and Israel would one day be able to live side-by-side in peace, each accepting the other's existence, he answered promptly. "Yes, the answer is yes."
I pressed him about the charges that he had supplied weapons and help to Hezbollah, but he insisted that he gave political support, and nothing more. People who wanted to resist would always find weapons, he added.
He has also been accused of helping the insurgents in Iraq. Was he, I asked, prepared to help the people who killed British and American soldiers?
He replied that people had a right to resist any occupying forces, and Syria supported that right. But he insisted that he did not help the Iraqi insurgents. In fact, he said, Syria had stopped many would-be insurgents crossing the border.
President Assad is a quiet, intellectually precise man, who looks much more like the ophthalmologist he once was than the leader of a country accused of giving support to terrorism.
He is clearly trying to introduce a new approach to the exercise of power in a traditionally fierce autocracy, persuading people that they should not see their president as super-human and all-powerful.
But was he really the one in charge here, I asked, or did someone else tell him what to do? His father would probably have ordered me out of the country if I had asked him that - and of course I would not have needed to.
Bashar al-Assad merely smiled and said yes, he was certainly in charge. "But for me," he went on, "the biggest mistake is to flout the public will".
The so-called Damascus Spring which he introduced has long since faded, but he insisted he still wanted to open Syria up. Then he added: "Reform does not mean losing control."
For all his quiet calmness, you can still see occasional signs of his father's steeliness.