Syria

President al-Assad to Der Spiegel: No dialogue with gunmen

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Turkey's Halk TV in DamascusPresident Bashar al-Assad said that all the political decisions that have been taken by the west in the last ten years have been in support of al-Qaeda, intentionally or inadvertently.

In an interview with the German Der Spiegel News Magazine, President al-Assad said that through Western support, now there are thousands of al-Qaeda fighters from 80 countries in Syria.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Der Spiegel: Mr. President, do you love your country?

President Assad:Of course, and in this I am no different from most people. This is not merely about emotions, but rather about what one can do for his country if he has the power and especially in times of crisis;and at this particular time, I realize more than ever how much I love my country and so I must protect it.

Der Spiegel: Wouldn’t you be more patriotic if you stepped down and allowed for negotiations over an interim government or for a cease-fire with the armed opposition?

President Assad:The Syrian people determine my fate; no other party can determine this issue. As for the armed opposition or factions, who do they represent – the Syrian people? If so, this can be proven only through the ballot box.

Der Spiegel:Are you prepared to run in the next elections?

President Assad:My term ends in August next year. The presidential elections should take place before that time. I cannot decide now whether I am going to run; this depends on what the Syrian people want.If people are not behind me, I won’t stand in the elections.

Der Spiegel:Will you seriously consider giving up power?

President Assad:This is not about me or what I want. It’s about what people want. The country is not mine alone, it’s the country for all Syrians.

Der Spiegel:But some people say that you are the cause of the rebellion, because people want to get rid of corruption and tyranny. They call for a true democracy; and according to the opposition, this is not possible with you in power.

President Assad:Do these people speak for themselves, or do they speak on behalf of the Syrian people or on behalf of the countries that are backing them? Do they speak on behalf of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia or Qatar? Let me be clear about this: this conflict is being brought to our country from the outside world. These people live in five-star hotels, they are dictated to by their financial backers and have no grass roots in Syria.

Der Spiegel:Do you deny that there is a strong opposition against you in your country?

President Assad:There is certainly an opposition in our country. What country doesn’t have opposition? It’s impossible for all the Syrians to be on my side.

Der Spiegel:It’s not only us who deny the legitimacy of your presidency. U.S. President Barack Obama said at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York that a leader who kills his people and gases children to death has forfeited any right to rule his country.

President Assad:First, he is the president of the United States and has no right to pass judgment on Syria.Second, he has no right to tell the Syrian people whom to choose as their president. Third, what he says in realty has no foundation whatsoever. He has been calling for me to step down for one and a half years. What next? Have his statements made any impact? None whatsoever.

Der Spiegel:For us, it seems that you are ignoring reality. By stepping down, you save the people a great deal of suffering.

President Assad: This has nothing to do with me being president. Killing innocent people and terrorizing them by explosions and car bombs, brought to our country by al-Qaeda, is what causes pain to the Syrian people. What does that have to do with me being in office?

Der Spiegel:It is relevant because your forces and security services have committed some of these atrocities and you are responsible for that.

President Assad: Despite the fact that the protests were not peaceful at all, it was our policy from the beginning to respond to the demands of the demonstrators.In the first weeks, we lost soldiers and policemen who were killed in those protests. Nevertheless, a specialized committee changed the constitution to meet protesters’ demands and a referendum was held. On the other hand, we also needed to confront terrorism; it’s the duty of the government to defend the country and take the relevant decisions to that effect. In the context of implementing these decisions, mistakes were made. We must acknowledge that.

Der Spiegel:The rebellion started with demonstrations in Dara’a and the victims were not only members of your security forces. The other side also suffered a great deal. The protesters were beaten and fired at. This harsh treatment was one of the regime’s mistakes.

President Assad:When political measures are implemented – anywhere in the world – mistakes are made;we are only human.

Der Spiegel:So, you acknowledge that the harsh treatment meted out at the protesters was a mistake. President Assad:There were individual errors. We all make mistakes. Even the president might make mistakes. Even if mistakes were made in on the ground, our principal decisions were the right ones.

Der Spiegel:Was the Houla massacre also the result of mere individual failure?

President Assad:Neither the government nor its supporters are to blame for that, because it was the armed gangs and the extremists who attacked the families who supported the government. This is exactly what happened. If you want to assert something to the contrary, you need to provide the evidence and this is what you cannot do. We, however, and contrary to your claims, can give you the names of the victims who were killed because they stood against terrorism.

Der Spiegel:We have evidence. Our reporters were in Houla and talked to the victims and carried out thorough investigations. The U.N. experts reached a conclusion, after investigating the case, that 108 people in the village were killed, including 49 children and 34 women, victims of your regime. How can you deny responsibility and accuse the so-called terrorists.

President Assad:With respect to your reporters, we Syrians, know our country better, know the truth better and can fully document that.

Der Spiegel:The culprits were ‘shabiha’, members of the militias with links to your regime.

President Assad:Do you have any evidence to prove that?

Der Spiegel:We heard this from people we consider credible.

President Assad: I’ll be candid and even blunt with you: your question is based on wrong information. What you are asserting has no ground in reality. A lie is a lie, no matter how you phrase it or present it.

Der Spiegel:That’s right. So, you don’t acknowledge that your ‘shabiha’ took part in the massacre.

President Assad:What do you mean by ‘shabiha?’

Der Spiegel:The militias close to your regime.

President Assad:This name is actually of Turkish origin, in Syria don’t know ‘shabiha.’ The reality is that, when armed groups attack remote areas, and the army and police cannot provide sufficient protection to citizens, villagers arm themselves and create patrols in self-defense. It’s true that some of those fought with our forces, but these are not militias formed to protect the president. What concerns these people is their country, which they are defending against al-Qaeda terrorists that have been attacking them for months.

Der Spiegel:So, it was only the other side who committed massacres and terrorism, and your soldiers, militias, security forces and intelligence services have nothing to do with that?

President Assad:One cannot make such sweeping generalizations: “They are one hundred percent guilty, and we are zero percent.” The truth is not always black and white; in the middle there are shades of grey. But, in principle this is true. We are defending ourselves and not anything else. As to individual mistakes, I cannot, as president of all the Syrians, follow and check on each and every one of the 23 million Syrians.

Der Spiegel:Wouldn’t it be possible that the crimes against the villagers were committed by parts of the Syrian Army outside your control?

President Assad:There are criminals in every country, even in your country. Those can be everywhere. This is normal; but we don’t have sufficient information about this.

Der Spiegel:Do you think you can regain control of the areas you lost?

President Assad:It is not about winning or losing in territorial terms. We are not two states, one controlling an area belonging to the other, asin the case with Israel, which occupies our Golan Heights. This is about terrorism, which should be eliminated. When we liberate a certain area, as we have done in many areas of Syria, it doesn’t mean that we are winning, because the terrorists withdraw to another area and destroy it. That’s why we are also concerned about our citizens’ security.It is also important for us to win the support of our population: we win with their support and vice versa.

Der Spiegel: Do you still control the chemical weapons stockpiles?

President Assad: Yes, certainly. Furthermore, to assure you, I would like to add that the stored materials haven’t been activated; and no one can use them before they are prepared for that purpose.

Der Spiegel:This doesn’t rule out that the army was responsible for the attack. Western intelligence services intercepted phone calls in which your commanders urge the general command to use poisonous gas.

President Assad:This is complete fabrication and forgery and I will not waste my time with such allegations.

Der Spiegel:Isn’t it puzzling that we, in the West, have a completely different assessment of the situation?

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President Assad:In fact, your region is always late in recognizing reality and is extremely slow in understandingthis reality. In the beginning, we talked about violent protests, while you talked about peaceful demonstrations. When we started talking about extremists, you were still talking about “some militants.”When we talked about al-Qaeda, you were still talking about a few terrorists, although they are actually the majority. Now you realize that it is about 50/50. Take, for instance, Secretary of State Kerry who still sticks to the past and talks about 20%. This is exactly what I meant with the reality deficit you have.

Der Spiegel:Is the reluctance the West to trust your assessments due to the lack of confidence in you. Where does the reason lie?

President Assad: I think the West prefers to trust al-Qaeda rather than to trust me.

Der Spiegel:This is absurd!!

President Assad:I mean it. Maybe you didn’t mean it, but it looks like it: all the decisions you have taken in the West for the past ten years have been in support of al-Qaeda. Some might have done that intentionally and some inadvertently. In any case, and through Western support, now we have thousands of al-Qaeda fighters from 80 countries. We have to deal with them. I am referring to those who have come from outside Syria.

Der Spiegel:You are losing many soldiers, those who defect to the opposition. Are you telling us that they became al-Qaeda affiliates overnight?

President Assad:No, I am not saying that they are all al-Qaeda, but most of them are. The minority are defectors or criminals. At the beginning of the crisis, we had over 60,000 outlaws at large. Those alone could form a whole army. How many are fighting us? I cannot give a specific figure. Most of them cross the border illegally for jihad. They come to Syria in the belief that they will go to heaven by waging war on atheists and non-Muslims. Even when we get rid of thousands of them, their ranks are replenished by other jihadists.

Der Spiegel:Yet, you believe you will win in this conflict?

President Assad:Even if there was no chance of winning the fight, we have no other choice but to defend our country.

Der Spiegel: On the subject of trust, we want to remind you that you have always denied that you possessed chemical weapons, while now you acknowledge that you have them.

President Assad:We never stated that we had no chemical weapons. We always phrased our statements “if we had …, then …” But we never lied.

Der Spiegel: It is reported that German companies supplied you with chemical materials, which you used to make chemical weapons. Do you have more specific information about this?

President Assad:No, because these are technical issues. But, in principle, we didn’t receive outside help to make these weapons, because we didn’t need assistance. We are experts in the field.

Der Spiegel:Then, how many tons of Sarin gas or other agents do you have?

President Assad:This remains classified information until it is provided to OPCW.

Der Spiegel:According to intelligence agencies, you have a thousand tons in your stockpile.

President Assad: What’s important is the principle not the figure. We have these weapons – yes, but we are committed to making the whole Middle East a WMD free zone.

Der Spiegel:This is also a matter of trust. You say you have 32 stores, while Western intelligence services put the figure at 50.

President Assad:This is a technical issue better determined by specialists. As president, my focus is on the political track. We are transparent and the experts can access any facility. We’ll provide them with the data, which they can examine and verify and then judge our credibility. When we say we are transparent, we mean it: to date, we have complied with every agreement we have signed. Our history testifies to this.However, we will not bear the costs of destroying the weapons.

Der Spiegel:And the international community should simply accept that you haven’t hidden secret stockpiles somewhere?

President Assad:In international relations, things are not about trust and believing, they are about setting up the mechanisms on which the approach can be based. Whether you trust me as a person is not important. What is important is for institutions to work with each other: my government and the OPCW. What is important for me is to win the trust of the Syrian people and not the West. What is important for me is Syria not the West.

Der Spiegel:Don’t you need the West?

President Assad:Of course, but not to replace the Syrians, or the Russians who are real friends. They understand better than the West the truth about what is happening here in reality. If I am praising them now, this is not because of the close ties that have linked us for years, but because, frankly, the Russians are more independent than you are in Europe. You rely too much on the United States in your policies and easily adopt its policies.

Der Spiegel:Has it crossed your mind that your end will be similar to President Ceausescu of Romania, when he was killed by a group of his soldiers?

President Assad:I am not worried about myself. Had I been worried and fearful, I would have left Syria a long time ago.

Der Spiegel:Mr. President, thank you very much for this interview.

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