Syrian President Bashar Assad
Interview conducted by Amr Nassif
Introduction: Whenever they criticize the official Arab regime, Arab journalists usually use the expression: “The majority of the Arab regimes,” to distinguish some Arab leaders, at the top of whom comes President Bashar Assad who enjoys special characteristics in the minds of the Arab citizens, characteristics that actually add to his responsibilities and commitments.
The dialogue with President Assad exceeds in its value and meaning the limits of any traditional journalistic dialogue with a leader or president. The Arab journalist in this circumstance cannot but be a representative, in one sense or another, of a broad range of Arab audiences which gave its confidence to this President.
Thus, the journalist cannot ignore the fact that President Bashar Assad is a citizen who occupies the post of President or a President who didn’t abandon his citizenship.
Even more, the journalist here cannot ignore the fact that dialogue with President Bashar Assad has no limits because he does not dictate the questions to the journalists and does not set taboos or draw red lines. This is why I promise not to waste any of these characteristics. Mr. President welcome to Al-Manar Television.
AL-ASSAD Welcome to Syria.
Q: To start with Mr. President, Syria went through lots of crises during the last few years by adopting a policy of challenge and steadfastness, knowing that such policy could have caused Syria to pay heavy prices. I wanted to ask you about the margin of “adventure” in the Syrian decision to face the challenge.
AL-ASSAD There are two kinds of adventures; one that is imposed and another that is by choice. As Syrians, we’re not adventurers but we live in the Middle East which is historically a complicated region.
This region in particular has been a coveted spot for thousands of years, because it’s the center of the world where strategic interests underlie.
Whether you wanted to make a policy or a war, in either case it’s an adventure.
But as I have just said, it’s an imposed adventure. However, we have to differentiate between adventure and gambling. When we assume that the best and easiest solution is to put our future and capabilities in the hands of the big powers with the belief that they will resolve our problems, this is gambling. From our previous experience, the big powers always complicate the problems for various reasons that are in most cases out of evil intent. But even if we assume good intentions, problems will get complicated because they do not belong to this region. We didn’t accept to be part of a gamble that would put Syria, its policies, and its interests in a foreign scheme. This is what happened recently when the project of the New Middle East was raised. This project included Iraq and Lebanon, and Syria was supposed to be part of it. They sought to lure it into this project, but it turned it down. Thus, Syria had to pay a price. This is consistent with a speech I made in 2005, when I said that the price of resistance was less than the price of chaos, and that gambling will lead to chaos and therefore to the ultimate price. Between the high price and the ultimate price, we will choose the first, especially when there is no such thing as a low price or no price at all.
Q: Mr. President, you stressed on several occasions that Syria was against the policy bargains and deals. The problem is that the other side, and I mean the United States, is a regime that only believes in pressure and deals. Yet, the relation between the US and Syria is ameliorating. How did you reach this equation of committing not make deals with a party that only acknowledges deals?
AL-ASSAD At the end, they failed. I’m not only talking about the United States but all the supporters of the previous scheme, supposing that the creator of this scheme was (US former President George W.) Bush. We don’t want to combine between the former and current US administrations. Of course, there are differences. Therefore, when we talk about the United States, some think that the same project is still ongoing. This is not true. At that time, the former United States administration, Israel alongside some European states including France, the UK, and other allies in Europe, the world, and the region, they all worked to complete this project. But they failed and they had to start searching for a new way to deal with the realities on the ground. Personally, I think they have started to learn lessons but they haven’t necessarily learned the lessons. Even if they have learned the lessons, nothing necessitates that the lesson they have learned still remains, because when new people come to power, they might not read the history and therefore, make the same mistakes. That’s why this mistake is made continuously. But, of course, we’re committed to specific principles that represent our interests and convictions and we won’t abandon them. The way we deal with this is by explaining facts and realities, but at a certain stage, they adopted a policy of terminology such as terrorism, democracy, good and evil.
They created a whole world for us, and unfortunately, or maybe out of good luck, they fell in their own trap and lived in a world of illusion.
However, our approach was more realistic. So now, they want to join this world regardless of whether there are difference in our points of views or not.
Q: When you distinguished between the Bush administration and Obama’s, was it because you don’t want to burden Obama’s shoulders with Bush’s mistakes, or you really believe they are different?
AL-ASSAD No, there are clear differences, first in the proposals reflected in their speeches and second, we don’t hear dictations anymore. We have different viewpoints, this is normal, but we don’t hear dictations anymore. We can’t say yet that there exist results of an American policy, but there are some institutions in the US that don’t want President Obama to succeed for one reason or another. That’s why we have to differentiate between the two men in order for us to be objective.
Q: Allow me to describe the speech of the US Ambassador to Syria Steven Ford before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 16, 2010 as very severe. He said that he was not a prize for Syria and that Syria hasn’t changed as it remains a source of concern for Washington. He also spoke about the necessity to exert direct pressure on your political decisions and talked about some mistakes in Syria’s calculations with Hezbollah. Perhaps the most dangerous thing he talked about was the danger of Syria being dragged into a confrontation with Israel, even unintentionally. How do you describe these words?
AL-ASSAD He said so in Congress and before becoming Ambassador.
When he comes to Syria to present his credentials and become Ambassador, we can deal with all these words through our known stances. I don’t have to explain these stances because they are announced. But at the same time, I can say that any Ambassador represents his country’s policy. A fine Ambassador with a bad policy is worthless. The result will not be good. However, a good policy could impose upon a bad Ambassador to achieve good results for the best interests of both countries. Government policies determine policies and their outcome, not an Ambassador and certainly not his speeches. Still, I’m not in a position to comment on an Ambassador’s speech. When he arrives, we will comment on any stance he takes in the framework of new his mission here. With regards to conviction, he has the right to convince and so do we.
Q: Let’s look at the issue of bargaining from another perspective. Perhaps, there are no deals but some talk about prices. Can we say that one of the prices that Syria paid to ameliorate its relations with the West and the Arabs was accepting diplomatic relations with Lebanon and opening embassies especially that some Lebanese sides actually thanked France for the role it played in this issue. Is this a price?
AL-ASSAD Some sides insist they have achieved some of their policies in the past five years. In fact, they haven’t achieved anything. They only entered Lebanon into mazes. I’m not specifying these sides, I’m talking in general. Now, these powers want to convince others that they have achieved something, anything even an embassy. I actually proposed the embassy in 2005. It was not a Lebanese proposal. None of our former or future allies had suggested it before I did. I raised the issue in a meeting for the higher Lebanese-Syrian joint committee in the presence of Speaker Nabih Berri, then President Emil Lahoud and then PM Omar Karameh. But when the circumstances in Lebanon took a negative turn, we decided to disregard the issue. But I can say that the embassy’s proposal was Syrian. In all cases, if there was no Syrian conviction, the embassies couldn’t have been established. Everyone knows that when we feel a move is imposed on us or is the result of an attempt of interference, we would immediately reject it. The proof for these forces claiming that their policies, or foreign pressure, have established the embassy, we say that there is a much more important example. Few countries have raised the issue of the embassies, but a lot of states are now raising the issue of demarcating borders. Our response has always been a clear no.
This is a Lebanese-Syrian matter that should be resolved between the two countries. But when a request is made from outside these two countries, we do not act. Now, with the visit of PM Saad Hariri to Syria, we’ve started discussing the issue again. Before that, it was closed since there were no relations between the Syrian and the Lebanese governments. Today we are building these ties. But I’m talking about the principle. If they succeed in imposing the demarcation of the border through foreign pressure, they would be right. But if they fail, the world ought not to believe them.
Q: There’s another issue that some Lebanese always raise when talking about the Lebanese-Syrian relations. It’s the Syrian refusal to provide Lebanon with an official document stating that the Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. They wonder why this Syrian “obstinacy?”
AL-ASSAD It’s simply because you can’t give a document that you don’t have. There are some measures that should be adopted to obtain such document. I mean legal and judicial measures that specify the ownership of properties, which country was given these properties before and after Independence, Lebanon or Syria? When these measures are finalized, we start demarcating the border. But giving this document for political reasons doesn’t seem to be rational.