Interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad: 'Still they have not learned that Syria does not take instructions'
Monday, December 18, 2006
Editor's note: The following are excerpts of an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad conducted by Alix Van Buren and published on Friday in the Italian daily La Repubblica.
DAMASCUS: Two years of diplomatic and economic isolation don't seem to have tarnished Syria President Bashar Assad's shine. The Baker plan, with its request that the White House revise its politics in the Middle East, has brought him back to the center of the international stage.
Van Buren: Mister President, two years ago you said America one day would come knocking on Syria's door. Was this a prophecy or a threat?
Assad: Listen, before the war in Iraq I told them: you are going to sink in the Iraqi swamp and you will need someone to extract you. Later, everything we said happened. But it was neither a prophecy nor a threat. Rather, this is what we have learned from our experience in the region. We live in this region, we know the course of the events, and it was proven that depending on military power alone will lead you nowhere. They need a vision. And many recommendations in the Baker report are in harmony with our vision.
Q: Some examples?
A: "Here is one: they need somebody to help them to formulate a vision ... Second, the report talks about the need for a comprehensive peace, linking the different issues in the region to the problem of occupation, in Palestine and the Golan Heights, as we always said before the war and now. Third, it recognizes the central role of Syria."
Q: Is Syria willing to cooperate?
A: Of course we are willing. Because we have an interest in solving the regional issues - Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon - because we, the neighboring countries, will be affected more than the others. But to cooperate it is not enough to have the will, nor are we the only players. To achieve a result you need all the regional and the international players around the table: the countries bordering Iraq and Israel, the United Nations, Europe and also China and Japan. And you need to get some agreement about the vision of the future from all these parties."
Q: Can Syria's interests coincide, at least temporarily, with those of the United States?
A: "Yes, if America is willing and honest: When they say we need a unified Iraq, when they say they need to stop the violence, we have common interests. When they mention the word 'peace,' if they are serious, we can work together on all these issues. But I doubt that Washington's perspective coincides with our own."
Q: Why, Mister President?
A: "Because the problem with this administration is that they mix dialogue with instructions. Judging by [President George W.] Bush's declarations a few days ago, they do not acknowledge reality, they do not want to admit they were wrong."
Q: So is it a matter of time? Are they going to make a gradual U-turn?
A: We don't know. Still they have not learned that Syria does not take instructions, it cannot be bossed around by others ... We do not work for others' interests. And these interests for Syria are recognizing our occupied land and the whole situation in the region. Will America recognize them? This is the main question."
Q: Bush said, "Syria knows what it must do." According to him, you must renounce your alliance with Iran, stop supporting Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Iraqi terrorism?
A: "Regarding the infiltration of terrorists in Iraq, they do not believe their own accusations when they make them ... If you ask them in private meetings, they say that Syria did a good job of stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters."
Q: Do you consider you were on the winning side in supporting Hamas and Hizbullah?
A: "... One of our principles is that if this organization represents the majority of people then we have to deal with it. The landslide victory of Hamas at the elections proved that we were right, because we stood by the majority of the Palestinian people. The same applies to Hizbullah. But there is a second aspect: We share the same problems. We all have occupied lands, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria. And we have the same occupier or, if we want to be honest, the same enemy."
Q: You mean Israel? Is it the eternal enemy?
A: "No, when there is peace. You can live in peace and harmony side by side, but first of all you must achieve peace."
Q: What are the main obstacles?
A: "There are no obstacles in Syria. We have the full support of the Syrian people to achieve peace because we are going to get back our land. The real question is, is Israel ready to accept peace?"
Q: [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert said the time is not yet ripe to open a dialogue with Syria, and that the Bush administration is against it too. How do you respond?
A: "This means they do not want peace. But the most important thing, as you said, is that Washington doesn't want that. This means this is a weak [Israeli] government, it allows Washington to take the decision instead ... Weak governments can make war but cannot achieve peace. Peace is much more difficult than war."
Q: Israeli military intelligence said Syria is massing ... missiles along its borders, has learned lessons from the war in Lebanon and is preparing for a military campaign. Is the intelligence correct?
A: "You know we are still in a state of war with Israel because they still occupy our land. Secondly, we have to anticipate that Israel could launch a war against Syria at any time. They say in their statements that they may think of war against Hizbullah and Syria next summer. Third, they attempted to violate our airspace several times in the past five years. They even attacked the Syrian Army. So it is not a fantasy to say that war is a possibility in our region. And it is normal to prepare yourself for such a war, and one of the ways to prepare yourself is to learn lessons from other wars, especially the neighboring wars. But that doesn't mean that 'massing missiles' is a correct description."
Q: And what about Syria rearming Hizbullah, as Israel maintains?
A: "Listen, they have satellites, they have all the UNIFIL soldiers, all their intelligence in Lebanon, of the army, of the government, while we have none in Lebanon. With all these people and means, why do they not stop the rearmament, if it is true?"
Q: Does Syria support UN Security Council Resolution 1710 on disarming Hizbullah?
A: "We have some reservations on it but we support it because we want to stop the war and we want stability in Lebanon because the Lebanese in the end are paying the price and we are going to pay the price with them. But we said it is a temporary solution. Like a cease-fire, if you do not follow it up with political action, like working for peace, it can not last long ..."
Q: On the sidelines of the G8 summit, Bush said that "all that is needed is to get Syria to get Hizbullah to quit all that s**t, and everything is over." Can you really stop Hizbullah with a wink of your eye, if we wish you to do so?
A: "No, this is an exaggeration. They want to depict Hizbullah as a Syrian or Iranian puppet. Hizbullah represents a large part of the Lebanese. They have their own interests and their own vision which we share with them. We have a dialogue with them and, of course, with many Lebanese parties. They trust Syria and because of that we can have influence. But it does not mean that if we go against their interests they will listen to Syria."
Q: Yet Bush and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora accused you attempting a "coup d'etat" against the government in Beirut through your support of Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. How do you respond?
A: "The more I hear the statements by the current US administration, the more I
am convinced that when they see something, they see it in the opposite way ... We have an interest in the stability of Lebanon, so we cannot be with one party against the other. Sharing the vision of Hizbullah does not mean supporting it against the others. We support every matter of consensus about the Lebanese. It will
take time before this
consensus emerges. Then we will support it. We want to be in the middle, always."
Q: So it is not true that you want to regain influence in Lebanon?
A: "We have influence in Lebanon, we never lost it. But that does not mean interference. Our influence does not come from a relation with a superpower. We get it from our history and our geography ... Geographically, Lebanon is surrounded by Syria, the depth of Lebanon is Syria. But it is a two-way relationship: Lebanon also has influence in Syria because of its position and its social ties."
Q: Why are you so much against the international tribunal that will try the criminals behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri?
A: "We are not against it. We have an interest in cooperating with the investigation commission to uncover the truth of the crime. But this is different from the international tribunal. First of all, they did not consult us. The tribunal is a treaty between the United Nations and the Lebanese government. We are a state, we have our Constitution and laws. And without a treaty, we cannot allow any tribunal to work in the place of our government. It is like giving up your sovereignty."
Q: Mister President, you talk about peace, about consensus. Yet one of your closest allies, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says he wants to wipe Israel off the world map. How does that fit with your quest for peace?
A: "Iranians are not against the peace process ... They
never tried to stop us from starting the peace talks, not in the past and not now. As to his words, you may read what they said in Haaretz a few days ago: 'No Palestinians. No Palestine. No Problems' ... They started this logic."
Q: So what is at the core of your alliance with Tehran?
A: "Tehran supported Syria. That's enough. The whole world wanted to isolate Syria and they stood beside us ... Iran is an important country, therefore Europe and America have to talk with it, and we have to have good relations with Iran for the stability of the region, including that of Iraq."
Q: Can Syria help stabilize Iraq?
A: "Again, we are not the only player. We can support a national Iraqi conference between the different factions with regional support ... We also resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq ... However when talking about Iraq, one must not lose sight of the larger picture. As I said, all the different issues in the region are linked to the problem of occupation. The Baker report is very clear on this point: It starts with Iraq but it ends up talking about peace ..."
Q: Is the Madrid Conference on your mind?
A: "This is the only appropriate base for the peace talks. The principle of Madrid was clear: 'land for peace.' Much was achieved during the Rabin government, and anyone who wants to start from point Zero does not want to achieve peace because it means they don't agree on things already agreed on. As to the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world, those who do not recognize it are not realistic: They will achieve nothing."
Q: Did you get positive reactions form the European envoys that came to Damascus?
A: "When we talk about Europe, it should be a bridge with the United States ... It should not limit itself, as sometimes happens, to come to our region with American ideas, to convince us. But the role of Europe is limited by the role of the United States ... and also by its own internal divisions, before the war on Iraq and now. We cannot talk about Europe as such, but rather about some players, such as the role by Italy and Spain."
Q: Do you expect positive results from the dialogue with Italy?
A: "Our relation with Italy has improved a lot with [Prime Minister Romano] Prodi ... He knows our region and understands the events very well. Sometimes Italy and Syria see things from different angles and this is normal. The other side is that he has credibility and this is very important for cooperation. But we are still at the beginning of the dialogue. It must mature, because we live in international circumstances where Italy and Syria alone are not enough, we have to move with the rest of the players, with a common vision."
Q: You are speaking again like a central actor of the international scene. Do you feel vindicated now?
A: "You must remember than a little more than one year ago America said we were irrelevant, weak, that we had no role. The latest developments have vindicated us. Actually, whoever talks about isolating Syria is isolating themselves from the region. If you look at many countries who participated in the attempts of isolating Syria, now they cannot play any constructive role."
Q: Who are you thinking about?
A: "Let's say France for example. If you talk about the peace initiative by France, Italy and Spain, we cooperate with Rome and Madrid. But not with Paris: because of their policies, because they no longer have the credibility to play such a role."
Q: Some would object that during this time there was in Syria a tightening of liberties. That civil right activists and political dissidents were imprisoned for their opinions, the most quoted case is that of Michel Kilo. How do you reply to such criticism?
A: "Firstly we don't allow anyone to interfere in our domestic issues. We know what to do, whether we do it right or wrong ... Second, Michel Kilo did not go to prison because he had a different opinion. He was tried in a normal court. He has a relation with a party in Lebanon which publicly invited the United States to attack Syria and occupy Damascus. This party is against Syria according to the law."
Q: Mister President, do you still want to open up the Syrian society to democracy?
A: "Political and economic reforms proceed in tandem. But there is an issue of priorities. Which means which one [do you] you have to focus on more? What is urgent in Syria? Poverty. This is the most important challenge. We don't say we're going to focus on the political side and not the economic but rather we look for what the people want. But in the end that is why I want to be a man of peace. When there is peace you will have prosperity in the broader sense. Economy, society, culture, all are related. So you can be a man of war or a man of peace. I have made my choice. Peace is central if you want to leave a fingerprint in the history of your country."