Interview: Bashar al-Assad

<i>Mother Jones</i> speaks with Syria’s president about terrorism, Syria’s role in the Middle East, and the future of Iraq.

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Syria has long been in Washington’s sites as a state sponsor of terrorism, a friend of Iran and an enemy of Israel. But the reality is more complicated. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cooperated with the United States in the months following 9/11. And the country arguably has an interest in seeing the war in Iraq resolved, in part because it is now home to more than half a million Iraqi refugees. President Asaad was once hailed as a potential reformer. But more recently, he’s been criticized for his handling of domestic dissent and international conflict, including the war in Lebanon. In this interview with Reese Ehrlich, Assad discusses these issues and warns the dangers of an American attack against Iran. Ehrlich began the interview by asking Assad if he thought the Bush administration was actively planning to overthrow Syria’s government.

Bashar al-Assad: These are rumors. Rumors. I can only talk about facts. But the most important thing, whoever thinks about destabilizing Syria, he should know that he is going to destabilize the region. We are the safety valve in the region.

Mother Jones: The safety valve?

BA: The safety valve in the region.

MJ: In what way?

BA: In a very political way. Very political way. The real, the history of Syria, the role of the Syria and the region, the link between Syria and our neighbors, social links, ideological links, and interest links with the region. So the whole region is connected with each other.

MJ: You mentioned that in the past Syria has helped provide intelligence about terrorist groups, Al Qaeda and so on. Explain that, and when did that cooperation end?

BA: Actually, we started cooperating with the United States. We took the initiative to cooperate with the United States intelligence after the 11th of September. And we succeeded in preventing more than seven plots made by Al Qaeda against the United States. The cooperation stopped last March, in 2005, because of mistakes were made by the United States, first. Second, because of their political position was against Syria.

MJ: What were the mistakes?

BA: Technical mistakes that led to losing many opportunities to go forward in fighting terrorism in the region.

MJ: That was also around the time in which the US was pressuring Lebanon to demand the return of Syrian troops and the charges about Hariri and so on and so forth. And so did that in general that sour the political atmosphere?

BA: Definitely. Definitely.

MJ Do you think the Bush administration will militarily attack Iran using the issue of nuclear weapons development, supposedly that Iran is involved in. Do you think that’s likely?

BA: Anyways, it’s a hypothetical question. But if you want to talk about logic and the interests of the region and of the United States and the rest of the world, it’s not to do such a thing, because the whole world would pay very expensive price.

MJ: What would be the consequences if the US did either try to impose sanctions or even a military strike on Iran?

BA: Sanctions won’t do anything. From the experience in Iraq and many different countries. Sanctions won’t do anything. But the consequences of destabilizing the region by sanctions, by military actions, by any kind of means, will lead to destabilizing the whole Middle East. And the answer is what the consequences of destabilizing the whole Middle East on the rest of the world.

MJ: Iran has a number of options should something like that happen. For example, it can work with its supporters in Iraq to attack US forces when they’re not doing that now. It has influence with Hezbollah that it could inflame the situation there. Do you think those would be some of the examples of the destabilization?

BA: I think the question should be asked to the Iranians, I mean, what they’re going to do. But for me, the consequences are much deeper. If you look at Iraq as an example, you cannot talk about factions or parties or groups. It’s much more deeper than this. It’s chaos. Total chaos. It’s going to be a total chaos.

MJ: President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad today, Zarqawi was killed. Do you think the Bush administration is trying to say that they’re making progress now in Iraq? Do you think that’s accurate or do you think the US has actually already lost the war?

BA: Lost the war and making progress are linked together, so I have to ask what the goal first. So if the goal is democracy, the answer is very clear. The situation is much worse than before, even during Sadaam. That we don’t defend in Syria. If they talk about better living standards, the situation is much, much worse than before. If they are talking about development, about infrastructure, about anything. So, everything is worse. So that depends on what the goal of the war. You cannot talk about occupation. I mean, occupation is not the goal of the war. This is the means, occupation. But if we talk about the military side of the war, killing Americans everyday in Iraq. And of course, killing Iraqis. Tens of Iraqis every week. Is that the goal of the war, from the military point of view? I don’t think so. The answer is very clear for us.

MJ: But even in a military sense, the US no longer controls certain areas of Iraq. It’s very unstable, even in the South and the Basra area. It would seem that even from a strictly military standpoint, the situation has gotten worse for the US. Do you think that’s true?

BA: It’s self-evident. No power, no military power in the world, even the United States, can control a small country militarily. You can only control a country if the people want you to control it. When the people are against you — and this is very normal, to have the people against the occupation in Iraq and in any other country — you’re going to have resistance and you will not control anything. This is normal.

MJ: What do you think the outcome is going to be, if you said a few years from now. What do you think the situation will look like in Iraq?

BA: If want to talk about the future of Iraq, we should talk about a consensus about something, and normally the future of Iraq is going to be inside the constitution. So far, according to what we hear from many Iraqi delegations who come to Syria, they are not satisfied with this constitution. Some factions think they are oppressed, so this needs to be re-evaluated. I think this is the goal of the future. If there’s no consensus about the constitution, you will have conflict or maybe civil war. This [inaudible]. Not having a new government or having some election. This is good. We support, in Syria, we support the political process, but this is not enough. This is for the short term is okay. For the long term, no — it’s not enough.

MJ: Sources have told me that you’ve been involved in promoting some negotiations between the Sunni resistance and the government. Is that accurate?

BA: Actually, what we try to promote is the unified Iraq. This is only what, the only thing. We try to see what’s in common between the whole Iraqis. And we try to make some negotiations. Some marketing, some ideas that would—that the Iraqis would think it helps unifying Iraq or keep it unified so far. And this is how put our role in general.

MJ: But specifically, have you helped facilitate some talks between the resistance — the people opposed, fighting the United States — and the Iraqi government?

BA: Actually, the delegation that comes to see we don’t know are resistance or not. They are Iraqis. And they don’t know, nobody knows who are resistance, only the Iraqis. So don’t believe, if anyone tells you, that he knows who the resistance. [Laughs.] But definitely, most of them, most of the Iraqis that we meet, they are supporting the resistance, at least politically.

MJ: And are you trying to facilitate those political supporters to hold negotiations with the government?

BA: Yeah, we always say that we are ready to help in any way, but, do you mean having conference?

MJ: Yeah. Or actual negotiations to resolve political differences. That sort of thing.

BA: Definitely, Syria is open for this and we try — we made some effort in that sense.

MJ: There’s been recent deaths on the beach in Gazaa. Hamas has ended its cease-fire with Israel. What is your — it seems like a very great struggle is re-emerging in Palestine. What is your prediction for the next short-term period in Palestine?

BA: From our point of view, it’s something between the Palestinian — something humanitarian. We consider them as brothers. But I think the Palestinians are paying the price of the Oslo Treaty in 1993. Second they pay the price of the paralyzed peace process, especially after the 2000 negotiation at Camp David and the deadlock that they reached between the Palestinian and the Israeli, and the negligence of the American administration of the peace process in general.

MJ: I’d like to ask some questions about the situation here in Syria. There was this Damascus-Beirut letter, and 13 signers of that have been arrested. Could you explain why and when they might be released?

BA: Actually, it was written by a group in Lebanon who invited the United States to occupy Syria. So this was made in cooperation with them, so this is treason. This is considered as a treason. So now by the law, by Syrian law, they should go to court. So now they’re in the court.

MJ: So are they going to be charged, formally charged?

BA: I don’t know. That depends on the court. So, yeah.

MJ: So there’s no immediate plans to release them then.

BA: No, you cannot. When they are under the court’s authority, nobody can help them.

MJ: Some Kurds in Syria do not have citizenship. I’ve heard different numbers. Some people say 70,000, someone said as high as 300,000. And someone told me that there is a law that is awaiting your signature that would allow them to have full Syrian citizenship. Is that accurate? And if so, when will that be signed?

BA: It’s a long story. It started in 1962, when many Kurdish immigrants from neighboring countries came to Syria for conflict that used to happen in neighboring countries. So in 1962, they were given the Syrian nationality. There was some, let’s say ‘flaws,’ in the procedures. And that caused social problems. Later was used as political problem. Now, we decided to solve this problem by giving the Syrian nationality to the rest of the family that they couldn’t get this nationality. About the number, the signature is waiting to specify the number according to certain documents — who’s his brother, put in some criteria like, who came to the Syria when…things like this. Technical things. So it’s not political.

MJ: Can you, do you know approximately, can you give me some rough idea how many? How many Kurds?

BA: You give me the answer in your question when you said roughly 300,000 or 70 — actually, some say it’s 100. Yeah. So we should be more precise. Because if you don’t solve it precisely, you’ll create another problem.

MJ: Is there also a political dimension to this, because the Kurds certainly in other countries are a volatile force. The US wants to use the Kurds for its own purposes in other countries. So is part of this a dynamic of political as well as just a technical one?

BA: For us —

MJ: For you.

BA: They can use it as a political. And some use that as political weapons. But actually, it’s social — more social than political for us. We don’t see it as political. We don’t have political problems. Who’s Syrian is Syrian. Is like any other citizens. Who’s not Syrian is not Syrian — he should go back to his country or to be here as resident, not as citizen.

MJ: The New York Times last year ran a magazine article where you said that you were preparing the groundwork for a multi-party law, and that it would be ready in maybe two years or so. What’s the progress on that?

BA: First of all, to make dialogue. When you say party law, this is the first time in our history to have multi party law. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have multi-parties. We have. But we are having more modern law. To have more political freedom for the parties in Syria. So the first thing to do is to make dialogue because this will define the future of Syria. So we said it takes about…let’s say a year of dialogue to define what the frame that you’re going to put the dialogue in. And after the dialogue, you decide. So it’s going to be national dialogue. It’s not dialogue inside the government. It’s national.

MJ: Is this dialogue starting now?

BA: No. Now, we starting putting the ideas. Like some intellectuals now, we start not dialogue while having some suggestions from different parties, different group of intellectuals, different politicians. Then we are going to collect all that. Then we are going to make proposals. So the proposal will be the base of national dialogue.

MJ: And do you have any idea when that national dialogue will actually start?

BA: When we have an idea when we are going to stop the making pressure on Syria, and to distract us in trivial fights everywhere around us, we’ll have more time.

MJ: So the Bush pressure on Syria is having the opposite affect then?

BA: Definitely. Definitely. We don’t live isolated from our region. We live in daily contact with it. And we will be affected with all the problems in it.

MJ: Does Syria plan to demarcate its borders with Lebanon — and then a second related question — or open embassies between the two?

BA: The first part about the borders: We had letter, formal letter from the Lebanese prime minister and we sent him a reply, formally, reply that we are ready to demarcate the borders. We don’t have any problem, because we have such problem with [inaudible] and we solved it. About the embassies as a concept: You cannot say that you don’t want to have embassy in another country, as concept. But that needs normal relation. Now we don’t have this normal relation with the Lebanese. So, it needs better relation to discuss this issue.

MJ: What kinds of issues would have to be resolved in order to have normal relations?

BA: First of all, not to have government that works against your country. Second of all, you need the Syrians to feel that they have real neighbors, not a cradle for — or not a hub for terrorists to come and do such terrorist acts in Syria.

MJ: So you’re saying, some, like these — I think it was like a week ago, there was a terrorist attempt to take over the TV station. Was that, you’re saying that came from external forces, from Lebanon?

BA Actually, no. This event in particular, it wasn’t made by certain country. Actually, it was only internal issue. But it’s coming as effects of our neighboring countries’ conflicts. Especially Iraq. This is a result of what’s going on in Iraq.

MJ: Who were the forces — politically speaking, who were the forces that were involved in that? Do you know yet?

BA The group, you mean?

MJ: Yeah.

BA: Only the group.

MJ: What was the group?

BA: Terrorists, actually. Extremists. Extremists. But actually most of those groups that we’ve been facing for the last two years, from our investigations and interrogations, they were formed as a reaction to what’s going on in Iraq. As a reaction to the war. Like the jihadists. They think the United States occupied Muslim country, so they have to fight United States, so whoever doesn’t fight the United States should be fought. That’s how they think.

MJ: One last question: What would it take to improve relations between the United States and Syria? Are there any steps that could be taken?

BA: Definitely, by the United States. Not by Syria. Because we did a lot. And we couldn’t get any result, because they don’t have the will. So first of all they should know and they should understand the situation in the region. They should appreciate the role of Syria in the region. They should know that we have common interests that they don’t see. I think they should be neutral in dealing with our causes. That’s how we can get back our relation to them.

MJ: So do you want to be any more specific about your causes?

BA: Definitely. The most important thing, our occupied land, Golan Heights — the United States should take into consideration that we see everything in Syria through our occupied land. Without talking about peace process in order to get this land back, what the benefit of this relation?

MJ: Anything else you’d like to add? Any message to the American people?

BA: I think, after the 11th of September, which was a very tough lesson — not to the United States people, to everybody in this entire world — first of all, you should learn more about what’s going on behind the ocean. All over of the world. You should send more people, more delegations, to meet with other cultures to discuss with them to know the facts, not to be isolated, away from the rest of the world.


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