The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Syrian regime, recently held an interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In the interview, Assad addressed the dismantling of the chemical arsenal, saying that, though it was a political and moral blow to Syria, he does not regret it, because these weapons have lost their effectiveness and deterrent effect. Addressing the decision to award a Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), he said jokingly that the prize should have gone to him.
Assad assessed in the interview that the Geneva II conference, slated for next month, would not take place, due to the division of the Syrian opposition, and presented conditions for the regime's participation in the conference. He harshly criticized the Arab states' handling of the Syrian crisis, stating that no Arab mediation plan or Arab solution had been proposed. He even said that the West, for all its faults, had been "more honorable in its conduct towards [Syria] than some of the Arabs." He detailed his opinion about the positions of Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the Syrian crisis.
Addressing the issue of Hamas, he called this movement treacherous and self-serving, just like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he did not rule out that Syria would open its gates to Hamas again in the future, should this serve Syria's interests. Finally, he stressed that Syria would not become a state divided along sectarian lines, like Lebanon or Iraq, but would remain a pan-Arab, secular and civil state, as befitting its internal unity.
The following are translated excerpts from the interview:
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (image: Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, October 14, 2013)
I Do Not Regret The Decision To Dismantle The Chemical Weapons Arsenal
"A striking [point] is the large place that Russia occupies in the strategy of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. He seems to have great confidence in [this country]. He stresses that, in their activity, the Russians are not defending Syria, its people, its regime or its president, [but] only themselves. He recalls a 2005 meeting with [Russian] President Vladimir Putin, in which he [Assad] hastened to express to his host [Putin] his feeling that the cold war was still continuing, and Putin agreed. Presenting the issue from another angle, the head of the Kremlin [i.e., Putin] said: 'It is indeed a war, but it is [actually] a war of civilizations between the East and the West'... Assad believes that it is diplomacy that safeguards Syria's security and stability, more than the military arsenal. He believes that the international [power-]balance is the best guarantee [of Syria's security and stability], and that the three vetoes imposed by Russia and China [at the Security Council] are the best proof of this.
"He does not even regret [the decision to dismantle his] arsenal of chemical weapons. He regards them as deterrent weapons that are now obsolete, and this for three reasons. First, [because] the development of Syria's deterrent ballistic capabilities… has rendered superfluous these chemical weapons, which are used only as a last resort, if the enemy uses nuclear weapons. Second, in the last 20 years, methods of containing and treating the effects of chemical weapons have advanced considerably. [Hence], the military effectiveness [of these weapons] is no longer significant, [he says]. Chemical weapons do affect morale, [as evident from the fact that] whenever tension rises [in the region], Israel distributes gas masks to its worried citizens. But, [as mentioned,] the effects of these weapons are easily treated, like a disease [that can be treated by taking] medicine. Proof of this is that five Syrian soldiers were harmed in a [chemical] attack by the opposition, received an injection, and two days later were back on the battlefield. Assad says that this is why Syria stopped manufacturing chemical weapons in 1997, and replaced them with conventional weapons, which he sees as the decisive factor on the battlefield. He clarifies that he has based the infrastructure of his army on [conventional] missiles, [and adds:] 'Firing on Israel's airports and thus taking control of them is enough to paralyze [this country], because it is a well-known fact that Israel's power lies in its air force. The third [reason that chemical weapons are irrelevant is that] the war is now an internal one, [he concludes].
"Assad concedes that surrendering the chemical weapons is no doubt a moral and political loss [for Syria]. In 2003, Damascus proposed that the Middle East be purged of weapons of mass destruction, [he says]. Syria's chemical weapons were a bargaining chip [to be exchanged for] the Israeli nuclear [weapons]. Today the price has changed: [Syria] has agreed to surrender its chemical weapons in order to remove [the threat of] aggression from it. Even the manufacture of conventional weapons, which has [always] been aimed at Israel, is now intended for [fighting] the internal enemy, and that is a loss as well, [Assad says]. As for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Assad said jokingly: 'That prize should have gone to me.'"
The Geneva II Conference Will Not Take Place
"Assad does not believe that the Geneva II conference will take place, even though it has been scheduled for November . [He says that] it may take place just to please Russia, which is trying to silence the war drums by means of this conference,... and Syria will have no problem attending it. Syria's demand is clear and is based on two principles: Ballots, and an end to supporting terrorists. [Ballots are the way to] approve any agreement reached, and to elect [Syria's] future president. [A halt to supporting terrorism] is the way to end the war, [he says]. 'For every 1,000 terrorists we kill, 2,000 [others] enter the country.'
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"[He adds:] 'The West's problem is that the camp it supports in the negotiations [i.e., the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces], is divided and has no control on the ground. The FSA is done for. Its members have left it, and have joined [either] Islamic groups [or the forces] of the state... Of the forces supported by the West and the Gulf states only the terrorists remain, and they have no place at Geneva II.'
"In Assad's opinion, the problem lies with the other side, especially the West. According to him, the [opposition] elements whom the West wants to participate in the conference have no control on the ground, and the ones who do have control [on the ground], the West has no control over them. He recalls that [UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria] Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi once told him that, according to American assessments, there are 2,000 armed groups [operating in Syria]. The Syrian president asked Al-Ibrahimi what his own assessment was, and he replied: 1,200 [armed] groups. [Assad asks:] 'Who can control them and ensure that they respect any political agreement [?]'
"Assad clearly has a bone to pick [with the Arabs]: 'No Arab leader contacted us and proposed any mediation [plan] or an Arab solution,' [he says. 'The Arab leaders] have always echoed their Western master.' Moreover, he claims that the West, with all its flaws, 'was more honorable in its conduct towards us than some of the Arabs. [Former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria] Kofi Anan was honorable and independent [while] none of his Arab assistants were.'
"Assad seems calm regarding the military moves on the ground. The war, [he says,] is one of attack and retreat. We regain [control] over one region and lose another. But if you look at the general thrust of events, you clearly see that the Syrian army is advancing. [Assad] put special emphasis on two problems: Daraa and the Jordanian front. According to him, weapons and fighters are still pouring in from [that direction], and it is immaterial whether this is done [with the help of] the Jordanian regime or the Gulf states... [As for] the northern front, especially the part close to the Turkish border, the Turkish support [of the Syrian opposition] is leaving this front wide open. 'The Turks have a problem, now that Al-Qaeda has taken control of the border crossing [he says]. 'In the other regions there is no problem whatsoever'..."
The Muslim Brotherhood And Hamas: Treacherous And Self-Interested
"On the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] and Hamas, Assad says that the MB has for 80 years been known to be fickle, treacherous and self-interested. He adds that at first Syria did not consider Hamas to be part of this group [i.e. the MB], and that 'the Europeans would come to us and ask what Hamas was doing in Syria, and we would reply that it was a resistance movement.' Only thanks to this attribute [i.e., its being a resistance movement] did Hamas win Syria's embrace, assistance and patronage, [he says].
"[Assad goes on to explain:] At the beginning of the [Syria] crisis, (Hamas officials) said that they had given us [Syrians] advice. But that was a lie. Who are they that they should advise Syria? After that, they claimed that we had asked for their help, but that was not true [either]. What is their connection to Syria's internal affairs?... [Assad adds]: 'Indeed, we demanded from them [Hamas] that they take a stand.' Sometime later, [Hamas officials] said that they had gone to Al-Qaradhawi and discussed [the situation in Syria] with him. We told [them] that anyone who wants to take a political stand must do so openly, because a stand taken behind closed doors is of no value. And then, there was a disconnect. Ultimately, Hamas decided to relinquish the resistance and to be part of the MB.
"[He says further]: 'This was not the first time they betrayed us. It happened before, in 2007 and 2009, [in their] history of fraud and treachery.' Assad then expressed hope, [saying]: 'If only someone would persuade them to go back to being a resistance movement – but I have my doubts.' From the very first day [of the crisis], Hamas took a side against Syria. They made a choice…
"[Al-Akhbar adds:] Though Assad is clearly pained by the wound Hamas has inflicted upon him, [it seems that] the door will remain open [to Hamas], should [Syria's] interest dictate this. Politics is ultimately [a combination of] beliefs and interests."
Iraq's Position Is Positive; The Relationship With Egypt Is Good
"Assad's satisfaction with Iraq and his respect for it is conspicuous. [He says]: 'Its position has been very good since the beginning [of the events in Syria].' But, even more noteworthy is [the fact that] Assad says he is speaking not only of Baghdad but also of the Kurds, of Iraqi Kurdistan – even though [Iraqi] Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who is part of this Kurdish sector, deviated [from this positive stance] in the positions [he expressed] on several occasions. Iraq's [overall] position [on Syria] is 'very good.'
"[About Egypt, Assad says that] Damascus is following the events [there] carefully and on the highest levels. He stresses that 'Egypt is the bulwark of the Arabs,' and that its relations [with Syria] today are even better than they were in the era of former president Hosni Mubarak. In the era of the ousted president [Mubarak, he says,] 'we regarded the Egyptian foreign ministry as the American foreign ministry.' He is also careful to emphasize that the relations were not severed even in the period of ousted president Muhammad Mursi, [and that] the channels of military and intelligence communication remained open throughout. Today, the relations with Egypt are better than they were in either of these two former periods [of Mubarak and Mursi, he says]."
Relations With Saudi Arabia – Disconnect And Hostility
"[As for relations] with Saudi Arabia, [Assad says that] they are in the same state of disconnect and hostility. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia is nothing but 'a country of [disparate] tribes and people. Personal relations determine [the relations between our two countries, he says]. When one of these [Saudi figures] disputes us, all Saudi Arabia is in dispute with us. Basically, the Saudis have shown hostility to Syria for the last 20-30 years, and what changed was the relations with their ruler. When their ruler has good relations with us, [relations] are good, and when their rulers disagree with us, [relations] with us are hostile.' There is always this personal aspect in Saudi policy, [he claims].
"In Assad's eyes, the problem with Turkey is [its prime minister,] Recep Tayyip Erdogan. [Assad says:] The Turkish people oppose [Erdogan's] Syria policy. A recent poll [in Turkey] showed that the vast majority is against [Turkish] participation in any aggression against us. Even [Turkish] President Abdullah Gul has begun openly opposing his prime minister's policy.
"[Assad concludes:] Syria will not become a copy of Lebanon or Iraq under any circumstances. Syria was and will remain a pan-Arab, secular, civil country, since this is the only formula befitting the unity of Syria, which is blessed with religious, sectarian, and ethnic diversity. Religion for us is an umbrella that all political, economic, cultural, and other circles can sit under. There is no politicization of religion in Syria because this is a recipe for fragmenting [the country]..."