Damascus (AsiaNews) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Austrian weekly News that his country would immediately and totally pull its troops out of Lebanon and would adopt constitutional reforms by the end of the year.
Specifically, Mr al-Assad said UN Resolution 1559 (requiring Syria to withdraw from Lebanon) would be implemented and Syria's constitution would be reformed. The last time, changes were made to the constitution date back to1973 when his father, President Hafez al-Assad who died in 2001, was in power.
The Syrian President said he would be able to name "the concrete date" of Syria's final pullback by the time UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen returns to Damascus, but he also specified that Syrian troops were withdrawing in accordance with a calendar worked out with the Lebanese government and "not because of international pressures."
Syrian withdrawal was a cornerstone of the 1991 Taef Agreement which ended the long Lebanese civil war, but hitherto Syria has failed to pull out in order to maintain its supremacy and control over its neighbour.
In the interview, Assad denied any Syrian involvement in Hariri's killing, saying his country "maintained good relationships with Hariri until the end."
He criticized the Fitzgerald report presented to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, objecting to its "political character" and "technical-criminological" shortcomings.
Asked about the Iraqi crisis and US complaints that Syria was providing assistance to the insurgents, Assad said that his government "could not close the border with Iraq", adding that "we cannot prevent rebels from transiting through our country to go to Iraq".
Many Iraqis, including top Catholic Church leaders, have accused Damascus of direct involvement in fomenting insecurity in Iraq and providing support to the terrorists because it is afraid of a stable and democratic Iraq.
On domestic issues al-Assad rejected accusations levelled at old political leaders who were close to his late father for Syria's constitutional impasse.
He said instead that he was going to grant the first licence to a private radio broadcaster and allow independent newspapers.
Similarly, he said that he has been engaged in "discussions about a possible law on multiparty system over the past two months", insisting that 2005 will be the year of reforms.
Still, Assad has failed so far to release as promised opponents to the Baath Party.
Answering a question on the peace process with Israel, he said that his country was open to dialogue with Israel in view of securing an Israeli pullout of the Golan, but criticised the United States, accusing Washington of "not wanting a dialogue" and hiding behind the argument that Syria "is a country with which cooperation is not possible".