Following is the third and the last part of the interview conducted on Tuesday by Former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Journalist Greg Palkot:
Fox News: Mr. President, our time is limited and I want to briefly go back in time a little bit. I was here in 2000 for the funeral of your father. You assumed the position of President, and at that time some people had real hopes for you as a reformer, to change things, to bring more democracy to this country. In fact, however, critics and analysts say you pulled back to the point where now you are branded other things; you’re branded “dictator” and much, much worse. How does that make you feel when people say you lost the plot, that is, you lost the trail of what you might have done then, that might have avoided all of this now?
President Assad: First of all, if you want to talk about the hope, I would say I’m the hope of the Syrians, it doesn’t matter if I’m the hope of any foreign person, whether he’s official or any other one. So, all the terms that you’ve used in your question should be referred to the Syrians to see whether they agree upon these terms or not. At the end, it’s not about the term, it’s about the content. It doesn’t matter what they say, whether he is dictator or reformer. Today, you have propaganda. Do they say the same word about their allies in the Gulf States? Do they talk about dictatorship in the Gulf States?
Fox News: We’re talking about Syria.
Reform is not the job of a certain person, reform is a social process
President Assad: Yeah, I know, but I have the right to answer about the other states that are much far from democracy than the Syrian state. Going back to your question, the reform is not the job of a certain person in a country, whether the President or the government or the people. The President and the government can lead the reform, but the reform is a social process, and it’s influenced by many different things including the external factors, whether you have a war, whether you have stability, whether you have better economic conditions, whether you have very bad ideologies coming from abroad. So, talking about the reform in the way that I presented at the very beginning and I still believe in the same concept, values and principles. You should have democracy that reflects our own traditions, but democracy is not a goal; it means to reach prosperity, and democracy based on accepting the other. When you have a closed ideology and many taboos that prevent you from accepting the other culture in your country, you are going backwards. It doesn’t matter what the President does in that regard. Not the constitution, not the law, not any other process can make the democracy a real one, a realistic one in such a society. Only when the society makes this democracy, you can talk about it. It’s a culture. So, I’m still a reformer, I still believe in the same values, but if you go back to the history of the past decades, the most complicated situations happening in our region, this is one of the reasons why the democracy – not in Syria – in the whole region, is going backwards. We are going farther from democracy, not closer.
Fox News: But again, to stay with your country, and stay with a little bit of recent history, move back just two and a half year ago, that was the first protest here in this country. People said that was still a sign that people were unhappy, your own Syrian people, about your move to democracy, and that was simply what they were asking for: more democracy, more reform. They weren’t even asking for you to step down at the time. Critics will say you moved in too hard, too fast, with tanks, targeting protestors, torturing, etc. That is the critique of yours, and once again, missed another chance. How do you feel about that, two and a half years on?
President Assad: Let’s ask a very simple question: if we want to oppress those people because we don’t accept their requests, why did the President himself – I said in one of my speeches at the very beginning of the conflict, why did I say publically that those people have legitimate demands? This is first. Second, if we are going to use the force, why did we change the constitution? Why did we change the law? Why do we have now more than 15 new political parties in Syria? Why did we change so many laws that they asked for? Because we knew it wasn’t about democracy. If they asked for democracy, how they did kill some of those people – I’m not generalizing – some demonstrators demonstrated for the reasons you mentioned, but some others they killed soldiers and killed policemen in the first week of the conflict. What is the relation between asking for democracy and killing and assassinating? So, we have to be very precise and differentiate between people who ask for democracy and terrorists. Part of those people who were opposing the government at the very beginning, today they support the government against the terrorists, because they asked for reform, but they didn’t ask for terrorists. So, you’re talking about two completely different situations between the beginning of the conflict and today. So, we’re still moving forward in the path of democracy, and part of the solution that I just mentioned few minutes ago when we sit around the table, the Syrian people will say what is the best constitution, what is the best political system. Do they want it parliamentarian, presidential, quasi-presidential, and so on. What laws do they want? Everything! So, it’s not the president who is going to set. If the people want to set up their own system, this is democracy.
Fox News: Well, you bring up a point that leads to my next question. Some people will say that you have waged a war of attrition, that is, that you have weighted and ground people down, and some of those that felt, very peacefully, that they wanted a change here and democracy, now, after two and a half years of fighting, they’re willing to give in a little bit, and at the outset you talked about terrorists coming inside, and now you’ve created a situation on the ground because of the long period for the terrorists to come here. My point is: you’re not really changing people’s minds; you’re just forcing them into this box, this box where, over two and a half years on, 110,000 people dead, cities in ruins, and you’re hoping that your people will surrender to the idea. I mean, is that really where you wanted to go with that idea?
President Assad: So the core of the idea, is that I created the atmosphere to invite terrorists to Syria?
Fox News: You held on long enough against the demands of the people who wanted peaceful demands.
President Assad: From the very beginning we accepted the demands.
Fox News: You accepted the demands?
President Assad: From the very beginning, before the terrorists or those foreigners coming to Syria. From the very beginning, in 2011, six days after the conflict, we said we are going to change, and we started the process of changing the constitution two or three months after the beginning. And we had the vote. I didn’t change the constitution; there was a referendum, and the people voted in that referendum for this new constitution, in the beginning of 2012, in February, before the end of one year of the conflict. So, what you’re saying is a far cry from reality, it’s a completely different story, none of these things happened in Syria. This is about maybe another country. What happened in Syria, from the beginning we said if there are any demands, we are ready to change anything. What would the President do or how could he succeed if the people are against him? How can he succeed? Do you want to be the President just for the sake of being President? That’s not realistic, that’s impossible.
Fox News: Did you back your tactics in this war? A year ago, we stood in Homs, one of your great cities, and we watched as your artillery which was lined out around the outskirts of the city pound again and again relentlessly the centre of the city. You say you’re going for the enemy, you say you’re going for the terrorists, but that, some would call it indiscriminate shelling, has left many, many civilians dead and, frankly, left that city, and many of your other great cities like Aleppo and others, in ruins. I mean, is this the way to go after, if you think that there are some terrorists out there, the terrorist enemies of your state?
President Assad: So, it’s like if you say that when the terrorists infiltrate some area or attack a certain part of any city, the civilians would stay? That’s impossible. Whenever the terrorists enter an area, the civilians would leave unless they use them as human shields, but in most of the cases the civilians would quit their area because of the terrorists, and that’s why you have so many refugees. So, in most of the cases, the Syrian army attacked an area where there’s no civilians living in it. In most cases, you can hardly find civilians with terrorists. Fox News: But there are estimates, Mr. President, of the total of the 110,000 dead so far, is at least about 50,000 civilians. Are you saying that there were 50,000 human shields?
President Assad: First of all, what is the source of your information?
Fox News: That is a breakdown by analysts who look at these numbers. You think it is lower?
President Assad: Analysts living in the United States or Europe? You can only talk about facts; you cannot talk about estimations and allegations.
Fox News: 110,000 is a fact that everyone agrees with.
President Assad: Of course, I said there are tens of thousands of dead. I didn’t say the exact number for one reason: because we have thousands of missing people. We cannot count them as dead till we know that they are dead. It’s a war now. So, talking about the number, you have to be very precise. You’re talking about the number as a spread sheet, without knowing that they have family, this is tragedy. We live with these people. This is a human tragedy. It’s not about numbers; it’s about every family in Syria lost dear ones, including my family. We lost members of family. We lost friends and that’s why we’re fighting terrorism. So, should we allow the terrorists to continue without fighting them, this number, if it’s close to the real number, will be so many folds, will be millions, not hundreds of thousands.
Fox News: We don’t want to be lost in numbers, because as you say, it’s a human issue here. But again, you used the figure of 90% of the opposition, the rebels, are Al Qaeda. You stand by that? 90%?
President Assad: 80 to 90%, no one has the exact number. You don’t have the exact number, because they are coming and flowing irregularly.
Fox News: You don’t think that’s too high? I mean, people are putting that lower, at least 50/50. One would say that it’s at least 50/50.
President Assad: Which people? I’m sure not the Syrian people. No-one from Syria says they are 50/50. From abroad maybe, they have their own estimations. But at the end, it’s our conflict, we live here, it’s our own country. We can tell how much. But 50/50, how did they count it?
Fox News: But again, just to sum up on what you’ve been saying, in one quote you said “the opposition has been manufactured from abroad.” Do you really feel that?
President Assad: It’s not a feeling, and it’s not about how I feel. It’s about what facts are presented in front of us. If they don’t have Syrian grassroots – because we have opposition in Syria that has grassroots – Why to have opposition abroad, how do they live? Who gives them money? How are they financed? And we know that some of them belong to the United States, and Britain, and France, and Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Real opposition only belongs to the Syrian people. As long as it doesn’t belong to this people, it’s made by other country. It’s self-evident.
Fox News: Are you minimizing the deaths by saying it’s not 50,000, it is 40,000 or 30,000?
President Assad: You cannot minimize it because in every house you have pain today; in every house you have sadness. You cannot minimize, whether this number or higher number. It’s a tragedy. We live in Syria. But we have to talk about the reasons. Who killed those? Not the government; the terrorists. We are defending our country. If we don’t defend, this number will be many folds, that is what I meant.
Fox News: I just wanted to clarify that. Now, looking at a broader picture here; this appears to be a watershed moment for the world, from here in war-torn Syria, a new road map towards world peace may be developing, by starting with you relinquishing your chemical weapons, and then moving forward with a concrete plan for peace in Syria. Do you think that we are at that kind of a moment?
President Assad: Are you talking about the situation within Syria? There’s no direct relation between the chemical issue and the conflict within Syria. It is completely different. So, if we want to move forward towards the political solution, we can, but that’s not related to the chemical agreement.
Fox News: I understand, but the fact that this chemical issue has brought the world together, to finally pay attention; is this a moment you can build from?
President Assad: That depends to large extents on the countries that are supporting the terrorists in Syria.
Fox News: Before I go back to Greg; there are a lot countries now involved in this process; not just the US and Russia, but Iran, Israel, Turkey and even China. So much depends on Syria’s cooperation with the Geneva process. Are you prepared to make sure that this opportunity doesn’t fall apart?
President al-Assad: Syria supported Geneva process from the very beginning
President Assad: We supported the Geneva process from the very beginning. We cooperated with the UN envoys that came to Syria. Actually, the one who put obstacles wasn’t Syria neither Russia nor China; it was the United States, for many different reasons. One of the main reasons is that they don’t have real opposition abroad. They know this is one of their main problems, because the core of the Geneva conference is to be based on the will of the Syrian people, so whatever we agree upon in Geneva will be proposed to the Syrian people, and if you don’t have grassroots, you cannot convince the Syrian people to move with you. This is the American problem with their puppets, to be very clear and very frank.
Fox News: Thank you Mr President. Greg.
Fox News: Following up on that, Mr. President, others think indeed that there is a way forward here, that you are for the first time in this last two and a half years speaking seriously to the international community about a negotiation track, granted, just a narrow track of chemical weapons, and in fact, there could be the possibility of longer range talks. Could you be a part of that, or if your strong allies and, basically, the sponsor of this new wave of discussions and negotiations, Russia, feels that perhaps it would be more helpful not to have you in the position, what would be your stand? Are you in this to the end, or if it would facilitate things were you to step aside for the good of your country, would you do that as well?
President Assad: Being here or not being here, that position, as President, should be defined and decided by the Syrian people and by the ballot box, no-one else whether friend or opponent or anyone has word on that issue. If the Syrian people want you to be President, you have to stay. If they don’t want you, you have to quit right away, with the conference or without a conference. That’s self-evident, we don’t discuss it, and I said it many time. So, no-one has to say that, and Russia never tried to interfere in the Syrian matters. There’s mutual respect between Syria and Russia, and they never tried to involve themselves in those Syrian details. Only the American administration, their allies in Europe, and some of their puppets in the Arab world repeat these words, whether the President should leave, what the Syrian people should do, what kind of government; only this bloc interferes in the matters of a sovereign country.
Fox News: I know you said that there are elections scheduled here, at least, in 2014. You would stand for those, and you would see if the people should decide for or against you, and those could be conducted in this current atmosphere?
President Assad: You have to probe the mood of the people, the will and desire of the people at that time to see whether they want to run for presidency or not. If they don’t see it that they are positive, you don’t run. So, it is too early now because you have something new every day; it is too early to talk about it. I can make my decision before the elections.
Fox News: Mr. President, according to the New York Times President Obama said the greater goal with respect to Syria is to curb chemical weapons use and proliferation of chemical weapons worldwide. Do you believe this could be a chance to reset Syria’s relations with the United States?
President Assad: That depends on the credibility of the administration; any administration, and that depends on the US administration.
Fox News: But you do not say that our president does not have credibility; I am asking you if this is an opportunity for you to reset relations with the United States?
President Assad: As I said, the relation depends on the credibility of the administration. We never looked at the United States as enemy; we never looked at the American people as enemy. We always like to have good relations with every country in the world and first of all the United States because it is the greatest country in the world. That is normal and self-evident. But that does not mean to say and to go in the direction that the United States wants us to go in. We have our interest, we have civilization and we have our will. They have to accept and respect that. We do not have a problem with mutual respect. We want to have good relations, of course.
Fox News: Let me ask you some specifics with respect to going forward, are you going towards a kind of constitution for Syria that guarantee more freedom for the people of Syria? Will you really work for that?
President Assad: Our constitution today guarantees more freedom but that depends on the content of freedom. That’s what the Syrian parties could discuss on the table. It is not the constitution of the president; it is not my vision or my own project. It should be a national project. So, the Syrians should define exactly what they want and I have to accept whatever they want.
Fox News: What, for example, do you think of free elections?
President: Of course, we have free elections now in this constitution. We are going to have free election next year in May 2014.
Fox News: Is there anyone else who can be a president of Syria?
President Assad: Of course, anyone who wants to be now can be a president.
Fox News: So, you are not the only person who could do so?
President Assad: No, I would not be the only person.
Fox News: So, you believe that it is possible for Syria to have peaceful transition without you in power? Is that possible? President Assad: What do mean be transition; transition of what?
Fox News: A transition towards a resolution of the conflict and the war, is that possible with you not being in power?
President Assad: If the Syrian people want me not to be in the transitional, permanent or normal or natural situation, this means it is going to be peaceful. Anything people do not want cannot be peaceful.
Fox News: Let us look five years into the future, what will Syria look like? President Assad: We have so many challenges if we get rid of this conflict, of course, the shorter one is to get rid of the terrorists as I said, but the most important thing is their ideology. We have no doubt that the existence of terrorists from all over the world – extremist terrorists – have left so many side-effects within the hearts and minds of at least the young people. What would you expect from a child who tried to behead somebody with his hand! What would you expect from children that have been watching beheading and barbecuing heads and watching cannibals in Syria on the TV and the internet?! I am sure it has a lot of psychological and side-effects and bad effects on the society. So, we have to rehabilitate this generation to be open again as Syria used to be. Of course, I am talking about local focal that if we leave it, it is going to be like a ripple in the water that expands into the society, this is first. Second, we have to rebuild our infrastructure that has been destroyed recently, to rebuild our economy and, as I said, to have a new political system that suits the Syrian people and the economic system, and other accessories regarding main headlines.
Fox News: Mr. President, as a reporter, I just want to tell you what I see and I travel around the country. I have seen this crisis going on. Right now, looking as you do at your country with may be 60% or 70% of your territory out of your control, and may be 40% of your population out of your control; six million people are displaced; almost third of your country have been displaced by this war. We talk about the death toll and those who were injured. Do you see any way back, do you see any way that the people could again be behind you in totality? Do you see anything that you could do at this point to make up for these two and a half years of horror, bloody grinding war which this country had been put through?
President Assad: Today, after the majority of the people experienced the meaning of terrorism – I am talking about the country that used to be one of the safest countries in the world; we used to be number four on the international scale of safety – and after they directly experienced the extremism and terrorism, those people are supporting the government. So, they are behind the government. It does not matter if they are behind me or not. The most important thing is for the majority to be behind the institutions. Regarding the percentage you put, of course it is not correct. Anyway, the army and police do not exist anywhere in Syria, and the problem now is not a war between two countries and two armies that if you say that I took that land and I liberated the other land and so on. It is about the infiltration of terrorists. Even we liberate or get rid of terrorists in certain area, they will go to another area to destroy, kill and do their routine. The problem now is the infiltration of those terrorists into Syria and the most dangerous problem that we are facing is their ideology; this is more important than what percentage we have and what percentage they have. At the end, large numbers of them are foreigners not Syrians, and they will leave someday or they will de dead inside Syria but ideology will be the main worry of Syria and neighbouring countries, and this should be the worry of any country in the world, including the United States.
Fox News: Mr. President, Thank very much for this interview.
President Assad: Thank you for coming to Syria.