DAMASCUS, Aug 15, 2006 (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Tuesday it was an honour for his country to support Hezbollah in its fight against Israel, describing resistance against the Jewish state as legitimate.
"I say to all those who accuse Syria of taking the side of the resistance that this is, for the Syrian people, an honour," he said in a wide-ranging speech that also took aim at Washington and anti-Damascus figures in Lebanon.
Assad, whose government the United States accuses of sponsoring Hezbollah, paid tribute to the "men of the resistance" in a reference to the Shiite guerrillas who fought Israeli soldiers on the ground in Lebanon and fired daily barrages of rocket fire over the border during the conflict.
"This resistance is a medal to pin on the chest of every Arab citizen, not only Syria," he said, adding that the Lebanese guerrillas had "shattered the myth of an invincible army."
A total of 160 Israelis have been killed since July 12, most of them soldiers who lost their lives in combat with Hezbollah.
In the hard-hitting address at the opening of a journalists' conference in Damascus, punctuated by cheers and chanting from the audience, Assad accused the Jewish state of not wanting peace.
He said there was now a "new Middle East" after Israel's month-long war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which he described as a "planned aggression" by the Jewish state.
Assad accused Israel of using the capture of two soldiers in a Hezbollah raid on July 12 as a pretext for launching its massive assault against Lebanon, which has been halted since a UN-brokered ceasefire took hold on Monday.
"Peace would involve Israel returning occupied lands to their owners and restoring their rights," he said. "Israel is an enemy founded on the basis of aggression and hegemony."
"The peace process has failed. It has failed since its inception."
"We do not expect peace in the near future," Assad said, adding that in the absence of negotiations resistance against the Jewish state was legitimate.
"Resistance is aimed at achieving peace not war," he added.
It was Assad's first major public speech since the start of the war in Lebanon, where Syria held political and military sway for years until it pulled out its troops in April 2005 in the face of massive pressure following the killing of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri.
The government in Lebanon is now headed by an anti-Damascus majority which took office after elections last summer following the Syrian withdrawal.
And Assad accused the anti-Syrian bloc -- known as the "March 14 forces" after a day of massive public demonstrations following Hariri's slaying -- of wanting to sow discord in the war-torn country by demanding that Hezbollah is disarmed.
US President George W. Bush on Monday had blamed Hezbollah and its "state sponsors Iran and Syria" for the bloodshed in Lebanon, where more than 1,100 people have been killed in Israeli bombardments.
"We recognize that responsibility for this suffering lies with Hezbollah," he said. "Responsibility for the suffering of the Lebanese people also lies with Hezbollah's state sponsors, Iran and Syria."
But Assad lashed out at policies of the Bush administration in the region, accusing him of adopting "the principle of preventative war, which is in complete contradiction to the principle of peace."