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memri
February 21, 2001 No.
49

All Quiet on the Eastern Front, Almost... Bashar Assad's First Interview

The comprehensive interview given by Bashar Assad, to the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat,[1] was his first since becoming President of Syria. It articulated, for the first time the official positions of the Syrian president on a number of key issues, such as the future of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, Syria-Iraq and Syria-PLO relations, and the president's position on the growing calls for political reforms in Syria. Likewise, President Bashar confirmed positions which he had already expressed in the past, regarding the future of the peace process with Israel. The complete interview will be available in an upcoming special feature on Syria under Bashar Assad.

The Peace Process With Israel

President Bashar clear stated that the Syrian position on the Golan Heights is the same as his father's: "I have not taken anything out nor have I not added anything. President Hafez Assad did not give in, and neither shall we; neither today nor in the future." President Bashar made the same demands his father made: Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line, including the Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, as a prerequisite for discussions on any other issue -- such as water. Peace with Israel, Bashar stressed, must be "comprehensive," thereby ruling out any possibility for peaceful relations between Syria and Israel before the Palestinian problem is solved.

President Bashar left no room for flexibility that would allow him to accept the maximal Israeli proposal to date. His opposition to border modification is fundamental, and applies to the "Shab'a Farms" as well (an area under dispute between Israel and Lebanon). He stated, "An inch of land is like a kilometer and that in turn is like a thousand kilometers.... A country that concedes even a tiny part of its territory, is bound to concede a much bigger part in the future...Land is an issue of honor not meters."

Syrian Relations With the PLO and the PA

President Bashar ended speculation, coming primarily from the PLO, about a possible thaw in Syrian-PLO relations. He did not mention Arafat, the PA or the PLO. He only spoke only of "The Palestinians," "The Palestinian people," or "The Intifada." This position was reflected also at the recent conference of Arab interior ministers, which ended with a dispute when the Syrian interior minister refused to mention the PLO and the PA in the concluding statement. In effect, President Bashar's Damascus does not recognize the PLO as a legitimate representative, and certainly not the sole representative, of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, Bashar was clear that if a Palestinian-Israeli agreement is signed before a Syrian-Israeli one that the Syrian positioni, "would take into consideration the position of the Palestinian public...[But] Any agreement that does not enjoy the support of the Palestinian public is worthless." In other words, Syria will rely on the opposition of the Palestinian public and the Arab masses to counter a PLO-Israeli agreement.

Syrian-Iraqi Relations

President Bashar's position on the development of relations with Iraq was much more cautious but clear. He believes that Iraq has been rehabilitated. The main obstacle to Syrian-Iraqi relations, was the position of the Gulf States, in particular Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

An improvement of relations with Iraq is worthwhile only if it doesn't entail a decline in Syria's relations with the Gulf States. Bashar's orientation, needless to say, remains Arab.

Syria is leaning more and more towards Iraq, while trying to minimize the damage to its relations with the Gulf States and, its potential relations, with the US. Syria has been known in the past for distinguishing between the Iraqi people and Saddam Hussein's regime, and even allowed Iraqi opposition groups to operate in its territory. Now, President Bashar states that the dispute with the Iraqi regime "is not a personal dispute" and he does not rule out Saddam Hussein visiting Damascus or himself visitng Baghdad. It is more of a matter of timing. As far as Syria is concerned, Saddam Hussein has been re-admitted to the club of legitimate Arab leaders.

Syrian-Lebanese Relations

Since Bashar Assad's rise to power in Syria, there have been many predictions, as well as demands from various Lebanese leaders, that the Syrian army withdraw from Lebanese territory. These demands have been spurred on by the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. In the interview, however, President Bashar effectively ruled out any chance of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in the foreseeable future.

According to President Bashar, the Syrian army has two missions in Lebanon. First, to restore domestic "civil peace" (according to the mandate given to Syria in the Taif Agreement). Second, to deal with the situation of "no-peace and no-war" with Israel, especially in view of the connection between the Lebanese and the Syrian tracks in the peace negotiations. According to Bashar, neither of these two missions has been completed.

The issue of domestic "civil peace" according to Bashar, is exclusively Lebanese. However, achieving it is not enough to bring about the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The second mission dealing with Israel - requires a joint Syrian-Lebanese decision. Once this decision becomes "joint," the Lebanese government loses its sovereignty.

President Bashar effectively confirmed what has always been known. Syria uses the Taif Agreement as a guise for keeping its troops in Lebanon for the foreseeable future.

President Bashar also addressed the predictions that his "openness" increases the chances of a withdrawal. "The issue of openness," he said, "is completely irrelevant." These Lebanese hopes were based on statements attributed to President Bashar that "the Syrian presence in Lebanon is temporary." Bashar stated that no Syrian official has ever claimed that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is permanent. The Syrian presence in Lebanon in Bashar Assad's era is no less "temporary" than it was in his father's day. Bashar refused to commit to a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, after peace with Israel is achieved.

Bashar's position on Lebanon completely contradicts his position on the Palestinian issue. In the Palestinian case, President Bashar ignored the Palestinian leadership and stated that the Palestinian people determine the legitimacy of possible agreements with Israel. But, regarding Lebanon he ignored the position of the Lebanese public and stated that only the official Lebanese leadership's position matters.

As far as Syria is concerned, Bashar explained, there are two kinds of dialogue: a dialogue with the official Lebanese leadership that aims at decision-making and a dialogue with elements in Lebanese society just "to form a picture."

Furthermore, the only Lebanese partner in "joint decision-making" is Lebanese President Emil Lahud, who is the "head of the pyramid." However, after this theory of governmental hierarchy was presented, he quickly contradicted it. The Lebanese leadership's sovereignty holds only when it collides with Christian aspirations for a Syrian withdrawal, but when it is undermined by Hizbullah - it is not valid. The decision about attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory, declared President Bashar, has to be made "through coordination between the state [i.e. the Lebanese government] and its 'institutions,' including the army and the Lebanese Resistance [i.e. the Hizbullah]."

Civil Reforms in Syria

Contrary to hopes and expectations spread primarily by Al-Hayat's correspondent in Damascus, Ibrahim Hamidi - Bashar seems not to support the reforms, but rather to oppose them. In the interview he discussed restrictions on the reformers and even threatened them.

According to Bashar, when he spoke about "openness" in his inauguration speech -- a speech upon which the reformers have based much hope -- he meant a reevaluation of the past not the future.

According to Bashar no timetables for the development process can be set because it depends on the "natural development of the society." Bashar's attempt to justify oppression is evident: the emergence of house-clubs, discussion groups and civil manifestos in the past months in Syria has indeed been a "natural development of the society." Yet, President Bashar wants to slow it down.

The Arab media has reported that so far no steps have been taken against the leaders of the Syrian civil reforms campaign. This encouraged them to broaden their activities. However, Bashar threatened these activists. "In criminal law," he explained, "the element of intent is significant in determining the punishment. On the level of the homeland, however, only the result determines guilt." President Bashar defined the limits of what is allowed and what is forbidden, vaguely. "Horizontally," he said "the limits are the borders of the state." "Vertically," the limits are all that concern "the security and stability of Syria." This demarcation leaves the Syrian security apparatuses with much room for interpretation.

Bashar Assad opposes the decentralization of governmental authority in Syria and the participation of non-governmental elements in the development of society. The goal of development is in his view, to strengthen governmental institutions rather that to develop institutions of civil society. "The development of civil society institutions," he admitted, "is not one of my priorities."

Following the permit given to an independent satirical newspaper in Damascus, it has been widely reported that the Syrian media is on the way to becoming pluralistic. However, President Bashar stressed that the Ministry of Information will continue to exercise control over content, and that any newspaper published in Syria must serve the ideology of the government. "When we discuss granting a permit to a newspaper," he explained, "the primary question is what is the goal of the paper...[and] do the ideas of the newspaper serve the national and pan-Arab line?"

Concerning the Ba'ath ideology, President Bahar doubted the patriotism of those criticizing it. A change in the regime's ideology requires a consensus. Refraining from attacking Israel from Lebanese territory requires a popular Lebanese consensus; and on the Palestinian issue as well, the signing of an agreement will be acceptable to Syria only if "the Palestinian people" agree to it.

Conclusion

In his first comprehensive interview since becoming president, Bashar Assad refuted many of the optimistic predictions about possible changes in the Syrian regime's attitude towards Israel, the PLO, Lebanon, Iraq and civil reforms in Syria.

President Bashar's foreign as well as domestic policies are not significantly different from those of his father. Although Bashar has made some domestic changes - such as granting a newspaper permit and encouraging legislation on foreign investments -- he insists on the prominence of the Ba'ath ideology and places excessive restrictions on the reform process, orienting Syria primarily in the Arab world.

The main change from his father's policies, is Bashar's openness to Saddam Hussein's regime.

President Bashar is well aware that he can benefit from the image of the young, modern leader --who surfs the internet. He discussed at length his personal ties with King Abdallah of Jordan. He reiterated that he only determines policy on the basis of "data." He reported that part of his daily schedule is allocated to "thinking," and many issues, he discussed "theoretically" or "abstractly." However, a modern image and new theories for old ideas, cannot replace real political change.

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.