Middle East

Middle East

Interview: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Photo: SANA/AFP-Getty Images).

Early on Sunday, Oct. 5, Israel bombed what it said was a terrorist training camp in Syria. Two days later, London’s pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper featured a broad-ranging interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as its lead story. The original interview ran from the front page to two full broadsheet pages. We present an abridged translation.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he regards the Israeli aggression against Syria two days ago as “an attempt on the part of the Israeli government to get out of their quandary by trying to terrorize Syria, and by dragging Syria and the region into new wars. Because [the Israeli government] is a government of war, and the pretext for its existence is war.”

Many are the questions that come to a journalist’s mind when entering the office of President Bashar al-Assad. The region is boiling and Syria is at the center of the hottest issues. It is concerned because the current events will affect the future of the region, the security of its countries, their roles, stability, and economies. The Syrian leadership’s approach to these issues is informed by two related responsibilities: first, toward its citizens and interests; and second, toward its sense of national responsibility and its commitment to its traditional role in the region.

There is no need to delve too deeply into details in order to illustrate the gloomy image of the region today:

In Iraq, the condition of war, occupation, and chaos threatens to worsen if U.S. President George Bush’s administration insists on refusing to transfer the Iraq file to the United Nations, which would confer international legitimacy to the project of ending the occupation and the restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

In occupied Palestine, the trouble caused by Israeli policies is deepening and the world is all the more convinced that it is impossible to make peace with Ariel Sharon’s government. There is an impression that “the ‘road map’ was stillborn,” [to use Al-Assad’s words]. This atmosphere is all the more intensified by the United States’ bias in favor of Israel...which leads it to pressure Damascus. Damascus, in turn, clings to its old stances, while stressing the necessity of continuing dialogue with Washington under any circumstances.

Al-Hayat asked President Al-Assad the most important questions about the following issues: Iraq, Palestine, relations with the United States, change in Syria, and Lebanon....Although the situation in the Middle East is still “hot,” Al-Assad’s analysis remained cool. An [abridged] transcript of the interview follows:

Al-Hayat: It’s clear that the cause of the increased U.S. pressure on Syria is Syria’s position on what is happening in Iraq. The Americans have set out limited demands and are continually declaring that Syria is failing to meet them. They may also have other demands. What are these demands? Is Damascus prepared to consider a compromise with Washington based on each side’s interests, so that there can be cooperation with the Americans?
Bashar al-Assad: It’s typical of the Americans that their demands are never limited, either in number or type. It may be that some of their demands contradict each other at times. A while ago I gave the example of weapons of mass destruction. The Americans are demanding that Syria be free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, yet when we demand that the entire region be cleared of these weapons, they oppose us. They place many demands, but what concerns us here is whether the Americans’ demands can be reconciled with Syria’s interests.... I believe that, for them, the most important of their demands is [that Syria stop supporting] Palestinian organizations. They have asked more than once, and in more than one way, for the expulsion of the organizations’ leaders [from Syria]. But they are not the leaders, just rank-and-file officials. The leaders are in the Occupied Territories. We reject expulsion, for more than one reason, but first and foremost on principle. These individuals do not break Syrian laws, they do not interfere with Syria’s interests, and, most importantly, they are not terrorists.

This, for the Americans, is the most important demand. The other demands are too numerous to summarize in a single session.

A number of U.S. officials, especially U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have repeated several accusations against Syria. It has been said of the continuing Iraqi resistance against the U.S. occupation that some of its elements infiltrated from Syria, and perhaps from other countries bordering Iraq. How accurate are these claims, specifically the charge that a number of Arab fighters were killed defending Iraq during the war?
Even in a normal state of affairs, when relations between states are normal and without any difficulties, there is always smuggling, whether of goods or people. But when the security situation is unstable, when there is a state of war, occupation, and chaos—as is currently the case in Iraq—then of course [smuggling] will increase many times over. That’s only natural. U.S. President George Bush recently told Fox News as much. Fox asked him about Syria and he said that [Syria] is doing what it can to meet its obligations, but that its borders are long. This is a logical point: There is a difference between what goes on with the knowledge of the state, and what takes place without its knowledge. The borders are vast; it’s impossible to control them.

More importantly, if we set aside Iraq and look at neighboring countries, relations between each them and Iraq are the same as among the rest of them: The situation in the entire region is extremely chaotic. Arms smuggling is rampant. Unknown individuals escape across borders. Naturally, the Americans call them terrorists, since, according to them, anyone could be a terrorist, or rather, any Arab could be a terrorist. We are constantly discussing this problem with our neighbors. The question that always comes up is: “How can we prevent the illegal transportation of individuals and arms across borders without cooperating? It’s a problem that affects us all.” Of course there are difficulties, and while the situation in Iraq continues as it is, difficulties in controlling the situation will remain.

Do you agree with the American suggestion that Iraq has become the central battleground in the war against international terrorism, by which I mean the fundamentalists and Al-Qaeda operatives that appear to have infiltrated Iraq? How much does Syria fear Iraq’s descent into chaos? Will that not pose a direct danger to Syria and other neighboring countries?
There is a contradiction in the American discourse here. The Americans weren’t in Afghanistan, and terrorism was. Then the Americans came on the pretext of fighting terrorism. To this day, they haven’t fought anything or achieved anything. But they arrived in Iraq—according to the American hypothesis—before the arrival of terrorism, to prevent terrorists from taking root. With the American presence came terrorism…as they themselves have said. So what about all the other states in the world where America isn’t present? According to American logic, terrorism should be even more widespread [in these states than in Iraq and Afghanistan]. The logical position is that the whole world has become an arena for fighting terrorism, not just Iraq or Afghanistan....As for Iraq being breeding grounds for terrorists, any launch pad for terrorism requires, before anything else, a society equipped for it. Iraqi society is not so equipped, and has never been characterized as terrorist. Therefore this [American] talk is specious. As for what is said about terrorists passing through, we find this all over the world. There are terrorists in America and terrorists in Europe. Does this mean that America and Europe are arenas for terrorists? I say yes, it’s only logical to see the entire world as the arena for terrorism...not just Iraq.

In light of this, how prepared would Syria be to cooperate with the United States if the United States asked Syria to help prevent or limit the presence of terrorist elements in Iraq? You’ve said that you have helped the Americans and the Europeans rein in terrorism and to uncover some terrorist cells in Europe and elsewhere.
From the beginning of our struggle against terrorism in the 1980s [when Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood] we realized that we were dealing with an enemy without a [national] identity. This was later understood by everyone who talked about fighting terrorism. With terrorism, the important thing is that you must be able to confront it in Syria, Iraq, or wherever it is in the world. And from this, comes the importance of cooperation. You have no authority in another state, but by cooperating with that state you can get what you want. There’s no state in Iraq at the moment, and no authority, so with whom are you going to cooperate? Who’s been charged with fighting terrorism? Who’s been equipped to fight it? Nobody. It’s hard to carry out a task like this in a place without authorities.

You’ve received Iraqi delegations from the Iraqi Governing Council and a tribal delegation. In the U.N. Security Council, Syria has always been opposed to or critical of the United States’ resolutions and policies concerning Iraq. What plan does Syria suggest for a solution in Iraq? If the current Governing Council insisted on the Americans’ remaining for a limited period to ensure stability, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and create legal institutions in the country, would Syria insist on a speedy departure of American forces, or is it prepared to understand the requirements of the Governing Council?
Naturally, we have called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces since the beginning of Iraq’s occupation, and this will remain the Syrian position. Before I talk about the alternative position, I’ll mention the current suggestion that the [American] forces remain for a period of time. What is the reasoning behind this? Some say that it is to prevent chaos and disturbances in Iraq. It’s one thing to say that there is chaos in Iraq because the occupier has not lived up to its duties to the occupied and that there is chaos because there is no authority in the occupied territory. It is another thing to say there will be civil war if the occupier leaves. The Americans are trying to tell the world that if they leave Iraq now, there will be a civil war. Some have tried to sow the seeds of civil war in Iraq by launching a number of operations, assassinations, and subversive political activity. They’ve all failed.

We have received a number of Iraqis—tribal delegations, representatives of all parties—and we heard them speaking one language. There are no conflicting voices or interests, and only one position. There is nowhere, therefore, for this seed [of war] to take root, and no ground from which anyone could mount a civil war. The continuing chaos may augur something as yet unknown, but I am optimistic that there will be no disturbances between various factions of the Iraqi people. So if we were to say that the [American] forces should stay, what would there be for them to do? Control security? They aren’t able to control security. Social disorder and lack of security are greatest where the occupying forces are most present. In areas in which American authorities are absent, the Iraqis have organized themselves and created local authorities of various forms and have effectively controlled security and the economy, even if that means resorting to tribal traditions to fill the current vacuum in the law. This position [calling for coalition troops to remain in Iraq] is therefore incorrect.

There is one basis to any state in the world: the people must gather around something on which they all agree. Usually, in any given nation, everyone agrees on a national structure, and the national structure is the government. So what is needed is an Iraqi government elected by the Iraqi people and an Iraqi constitution created by the Iraqi people. There is no other solution....

In the event of a federal constitution being imposed, what would Syria’s position be? How concerned are you by the possibility of federalism in Iraq?
We don’t talk about that, we talk about division. We always fear division. What we see is the opposite: We haven’t heard that any Iraqi from any walk of life is keen for anything divisive. As for Iraq’s final form, that’s an Iraqi matter, and it’s not in our power to define it. We are only concerned with the unity of Iraq. I don’t believe there’s an Iraqi who doesn’t want that. We haven’t heard that idea and so we’re not concerned about it. The federal idea, and others, exist only in the media. We don’t pay any attention to them. Everybody, without exception, talks about Iraqi unity. That’s what we want; the [precise] form of Iraq’s constitution is Iraq’s business...

Has the Iraqi affair opened a new chapter in the long history of discordant relations between Syria and the United States, or has it deepened this discord?
There’s discord between the United States and the countries of the world; we’re one of the countries. Certainly, we were against occupation and the Americans were for it, which constitutes an additional point of dissension, but not [just] because of the occupation. Since the matter of a war in Iraq was first raised, we have opposed it. When we opposed the Iran-Iraq war, there was some disagreement over the matter, despite the fact that some states supported the war. I can’t say that [the Iraq war] added [to the discord] because there has always been disagreement. At one point, there was agreement over the matter of Syria’s participation in the alliance for the liberation of Kuwait, but this participation had completely different goals... as became clear. We begin from the shared principle of mutual Arab defense, and I don’t think that America begins from the same principle, or else it would have undertaken a war to liberate the Golan Heights or another Arab territory. So the principles that informed our policies were different, although there was agreement over the desired result [the liberation of Kuwait] in 1991....

Do you see the draft Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act [currently before the U.S. Congress] as an escalation of U.S. policy on Syria or as part of a process of shuffling the deck, pushing Syria to take less hard-line positions on Iraq and the Middle East? How do you see it? Is there any concern over the bill?
Two matters are important here: First, there is a conflict between the U.S. administration—which does not want to approve the bill because it would damage the administration’s interests—and the Israeli lobby with its allies in Congress sponsoring the bill. Second, there is a conflict within the administration itself, between those who support the bill and those who don’t. This is our view of it.

As for the content of the draft, its general contours are already decided. The idea of blockading Syria, by withholding technology or by attempting to apply economic pressure, is settled. What is disputed is the political repercussions of the deal. There is no trade, no economic link between Syria and the United States except through the American oil companies that invest in Syria. If signed into law, the bill would damage these companies, not Syria. I don’t believe there will be any other damage....

You’ve implemented steps to redeploy in Lebanon [i.e. withdraw]. Is it reasonable to expect new steps along these lines?
As a fundamental principle. I’ve said before that the natural thing is for there to be constant redeployment linked with the possibility of setting up a Lebanese state strong enough to replace the Syrian forces. Generally speaking, the majority of our redeployment in Lebanese territory has already happened. Defining a timetable, the form, and the extent [of the redeployment] is a technical, not a political matter, and is being coordinated between the Lebanese and Syrian armies directly. The political leadership of the two countries is not intervening.

The Americans frequently demand Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. If we were to rank the list of American demands in terms of importance, where would you place Syria’s presence in Lebanon? Is it important to them, or just a way the U.S. administration can remind Syria of the cards it holds?
We don’t know. Some of the Americans bring it up. Others don’t. Sometimes the same individual brings it up once, and then doesn’t again. We can’t decide its importance to the Americans or whether it’s a genuine demand. I don’t believe that it is. There are no Lebanese borders with America that would make it an American demand. Therefore, it’s an Israeli demand. Is it to put pressure on [us] or not? In any event, the result’s the same, because it’s a Syrian-Lebanese matter and we don’t discuss it with outsiders. We and the Lebanese will decide. It has nothing to do with the Americans, the Israelis, or any other party…not in the past, not now, and not in the future.

There are some that consider that Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and its support for the Palestinian resistance were a power card for Syria at a certain time, but have become embarrassing in the post-Sept. 11 world.
I can say to you that we support the resistance in Lebanon. Is this embarrassing? If it were embarrassing, we wouldn’t support it. We have supported it in the past, and will continue to support the resistance until the Israelis withdraw from the Shebaa Farms [on the northern border of the Golan Heights]. We do not support the resistance because we have a special relationship with this or that party, but because support for the resistance is inherent in our principles. As long as there is a Lebanese cause—the occupation of part of their territory—and as long as the Lebanese favor liberating this territory, then we support this resistance unashamedly.

Does Syria listen to the Lebanese opposition? Were the opposition’s choices during the Iraqi war realistic, logical, and more rational than usual?
This was the case in the past, and specifically during and before the Iraqi war. We see groups in Lebanon—and not just the opposition, but groups in general—as living in a state of constant infighting. If you were to go 200 years back in Lebanon’s history, you’d find this same infighting. But what makes us optimistic is that in the period immediately following the fall of Baghdad, there was none of the traditional sort of competition among Lebanese groups, none of the infighting that has carried all Lebanese from crisis to crisis and failure to failure, for the competing factions take the Lebanese people with them from failure to failure. We noticed a change in the mode of competition. It is still found, of course, in a limited sphere. But Syria is progressing step by step—I don’t want to say quickly, but taking real steps—to open channels with all the factions in Lebanon, even with the opposition groups that disagree with Syria. Meetings have taken place between Syrian officials and many of those who disagree with Syria....We always say that Syria’s doors are open to all, to all Lebanese, even those who don’t agree with Syria....

The European Union has put the political wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] on its list of terrorist organizations. Are you worried about a European-American consensus on a number of these issues that are still vital to Syria and that concern you? Does such a stance obstruct a European role in the region?
There are two interconnected parts to this question. If the European role were obstructed, then we’d be worried that there wouldn’t be peace in the foreseeable future. In other words, the matters are interrelated. We’re not worried about a European-American consensus per se. When there is agreement and consensus in the right direction, this is in our interest. When there is opposition, this is harmful. When there is agreement in the wrong direction, this, too, is harmful. Of course, what the European Union did weakened its role in the peace process to a great degree. In other words, when you want to play a role in a certain arena you need the to deal with the dominant powers. I said to the Europeans, I said very clearly to one of the officials: “What’s important is not whether you call [Hamas] terrorists or not. There are certain powers on the ground that you have to deal with. They are the powers that can achieve peace and you are compelled to deal with them. As for labeling them or not labeling them… there is no value in that. The difference is that you may lose your role by such name-calling.” I believe that Europe weakened itself greatly in the Middle East, especially in the Palestinian arena, and lost a lot of its credibility. Because the Europeans know that Israel undertakes terrorist operations. When they were in meetings with us, they used to say this, that [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon does not want peace, and that the Israeli government attempts to knock down any peace initiative. How can there be this contradiction in the European position? It is absolutely certain that this will weaken the European role.

Do you believe that the “road map” is dead?
The road map was stillborn.

How do you describe the relationship between you and the Palestinian Authority? Did you deal differently with [former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] than with [Palestinian President Yasser Arafat]? Are you receiving delegations from the Palestinian Authority or having contact with their representatives?
There are some contacts and some delegations. Both are limited. What is certain is that the Syrian position is to support the [Palestinian] cause and not to interfere in internal Palestinian business, such as favoring one government over another. We do not support one authority against another. We stand with the cause, and our position is known and has been unchanged for a long time. At the beginning of the peace process, we believed that there could be a [political] solution, and that the Arab track—the Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian track—was one, until the Oslo agreement arrived and divided the two tracks [the Palestinian from the Syrian and Lebanese]. In the peace process, there is no longer any link between the two tracks except on the issue of the Palestinian refugees, whose fate is connected with the prospect of a Syrian/Lebanese peace agreement with Israel and an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is the sole link between the two tracks.

Aside from this, there is division over everything: There is a division in method and a division in focus....All that remains to tie us together is the issue of the refugees....We continually say that we are prepared to play any role in championing the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Because of this, we believe that Syria’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority is a separate matter as far as the peace process is concerned. There is no link; the principles are different and the treaties are different. As far as Syria is concerned, the [1991] Madrid Framework [calling for bilateral and multilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors] guides the peace process. On the Palestinian track, after Madrid treaty after treaty came along. Oslo came as a new treaty unconnected with the agreements previously reached at Madrid. Subsequently, a big division took place [in this track]. Then came one small initiative after another, until we reached the road map, which is considered a new initiative to sweep away everything that came before it...even Oslo. Meanwhile, Syria still remains committed to Madrid Framework.

Do you not expect a revival of the peace process, especially in light of the fact that the Americans are drawing close to new presidential elections? Is it possible with Sharon remaining where he is? Do you anticipate the peace process moving forward?
In this context, the expectations of each person I meet are more important than my own, without exception. No one I’ve spoken with believes peace is possible with this Israeli government in power, and consequently we expect this [to be the case, too]. As far as we’re concerned, that much is clear and well known. I’ll stress that the expectations of others—Arabs and foreigners, those close to Israel and those far from it—all of them say the same thing: With this Israeli government in power, there will be no peace. There is an absolute belief in this fact. It has been present since Sharon’s government came to power, and it has been confirmed with each passing day. I believe that now this is an international opinion, not just a Syrian one.

The fear in this context is that the hawks in the American administration, seeking to ensure George Bush’s reelection, will resort sustained pressure in order to make Syria and Iran carry the responsibility for American missteps in Iraq. To what extent is this a source of fear for Syria and Iran?
If we were to say that we are not bothered, that would be unsound and unrealistic. But it would also be unrealistic to say that we are scared. There is always some caution, so we can say that the situation oscillates between caution and worry. We’re not a superpower, but neither are we a weak state. We’re not a state that holds no cards, and we’re not a state without a foundation. We’re not a state you can bypass on important matters. The fact of the matter is that wherever the United States fails—be it in the Far East or in the Far West—it will blame Syria and Iran for its failures. This has become a cliché.

As in the crisis with North Korea?
Exactly so. I can say that the threats [against Syria and Iran], which some call pressure, are a flight from America’s problems. The Iraqi matter was a flight from the crisis in Afghanistan, and the attacks on Syria are an escape from the crisis in Iraq. They fail in one place and move the battle to another place. Sometimes they move it militarily and sometimes through diplomacy and the media. This is the true nature of the threats against Syria and Iran. The more they increase, the more they point to America’s problems, not ours.