TOKYO (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country could hold direct peace talks with Israel if the US acted as an arbitrator, according to an interview published on Wednesday. Assad also told Japan's Asahi Shimbun that he welcomed US President Barack Obama's new administration and wants to engage in dialogue for regional peace, but he also insisted on the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "We need the US to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations (with Israel)," he was quoted as saying in an interview with the Japanese-language newspaper. Assad cautioned that possible progress of such talks would "depend on the next Israeli administration," the Asahi said. The Syrian President harshly criticised the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hit out at former president George W Bush for putting pressure on Syria, the Asahi said. But he also stressed his willingness to help work towards regional peace. "Changes do not happen overnight," Assad was quoted saying. "We must first start dialogue to clarify the shared interest, which is to achieve peace. "The administration of Bush did not do that, and it only cared about the benefit of his own country." Assad welcomed the Obama administration's active engagement with Syria through sending envoys and US senators for meetings, the Asahi said. "It is important that we first begin dialogue and both take part in resolving problems," he told the newspaper. "It is not us who have changed. It is the Americans who have changed."