June 22, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 527

Bashar Al-Assad's Interview with Al-Arabiya

June 22, 2003
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 527

On June 9, 2003, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was interviewed on the Arab satellite news channel Al-Arabiya. Among other things, he spoke about the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit (to which Syria was not invited), the call for reform within Syria, and the Palestinian Intifada. The following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

'Syria Was Irrelevant to the Sharm Al-Sheikh Summit and Did Not Agree to the Proposals'

"Since the signing of the Oslo accord in 1993, Syria has had no practical presence and has not even touched the Palestinian path in the peace process. Its absence from the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit, therefore, was only natural. The question is not whether there is [a Syrian] interest [in participating in the summit], but whether or not [Syria] is connected to the issue [that was raised at the summit]."

"We have declared that we agree to what the Palestinians agree to. The truth is that since the 'road map' was proposed, and particularly in the last few days, we have heard Palestinian opposition to the 'road map,' not from organizations, but from citizens who spoke to the press. We have much to say about the 'road map,' as well as about Oslo and all other [political] initiatives."

"The question of our participation in the summit was not raised. We heard about it only in the press. The Americans did not ask us to participate or not participate. They did not require Syria's presence, because Syria is irrelevant to the issue and because we do not agree to the proposals…"

"The decisions were reported to us, and we learned that some [of the Arab leaders] raised the issue of the Golan… but the issue is not on the American agenda. I do not know why… Everyone knows that there cannot be peace without Syria, and that raises another question: Why didn't the 'road map' include the Syrian path, if a comprehensive path is desired? The American and European proposal over the last year is based on a comprehensive peace, and they supported the Arab initiative, [2] which promotes all the issues together. The 'road map' was proposed before the war in Iraq with no mention of comprehensive peace or major issues such as refugees, Jerusalem, the borders, or the Arab initiative – which was supported by the international community."

"There are questions about the 'road map' that relate to the [upcoming] elections [in the U.S.] or [the American attempt] to win over the Arab public. Perhaps, bringing Syria and Lebanon into the initiative is meant to give it a comprehensive character that enables it to pass. [But] Syria and Lebanon have no connection to the second and third stages."

"When we adopt the [Palestinian] problem, we do it in accordance with the desire of the Palestinian citizen, whose problem it is. We cannot agree to anything that contradicts it, even if we believe in it, and we cannot oppose anything the Palestinian citizen believes in."

"When we entered the peace process in 1990, we thought there would be one Arab path - Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian. Oslo separated [the Palestinian path] from the others. Without getting into details, it appeared at the time that Syria [took a stand] against the interests of the Palestinian people. After the start of the Intifada, the situation changed, and Syria became an observer. Many Palestinians saw it was not true that [Syria opposes Palestinian interests] and that Syria was right – Oslo gave nothing to the Palestinian citizen. We support the Palestinian citizen, but today his voice is stronger than in the past, because he has discovered that many issues raised in the past can no longer deceive him."

'We Cannot Determine the Appropriate Form of Resistance for the Palestinian People'

"According to our stand, and according to international legitimacy, and according to all other laws, including religious laws, the owners of occupied land are permitted to defend their rights and resist. Through history, this has become sacred. We do not determine the type of resistance. The [Palestinian] people is acquainted with the [stone-throwing] Intifada that began in 1987, which was preceded by different forms of Palestinian resistance. In my speech before the [Syrian] Parliament, I said: 'We do not support and do not defend the acts in the Palestinian territories. Our support will not intensify them, and our condemnation will not lessen them.'"

"We cannot determine the appropriate form of resistance for the Palestine people. We do not live on Palestinian land and there is no direct contact [between Syria and Palestinian resistance]. But I, personally, think that what led to the current situation is the past, which taught many [of us] that the previous situation brought us nothing. They tried the passive Intifada, the unarmed active Intifada, and now they are trying the armed Intifada."

"No matter what our point of view, this proves that the Palestinian citizen has lost hope in what was in the past, justifiable or not. The Palestinian has rights, and like every citizen of the world, he is entitled to search for a way to return his right[s] to him. If the international community, the U.N., and a united Arab position were to give him hope, he would not do this. You can't treat the disease; you have to treat the problem. We are not happy at the sight of a dead Palestinian citizen… The others, who denounce these acts and are outraged by the deaths of Israelis, must prevent the reasons behind them and solve the problem."

'We Must Tell the Palestinian Refugees: 'If You Want to Return – it is Your Homeland'

"The Palestinian refugee is [also] a brother in Syria. We have no position that accepts or rejects him; we will definitely accept him. But what is the position of this same refugee?… And if this is a central issue for the Palestinian people and countries like Syria, Lebanon, and others, why was it not raised in the initiatives of Tenet, Zinni, and Mitchell that preceded the 'road map?'"

"It was not raised, and what this means is that there is no serious initiative for solving this problem. They ask whether or not Israel will accept the return [of the refugees]. It's a question of effort. It's not for us to say that this solution is realistic or not. The Palestinians need to say it. If they say they want to return, they'll be free to do so. But if they say they do not want to return, we must support them separately from the agreements. We must tell them – if you want to return, it's your homeland."

'We Told the Americans That Closing the Palestinian Organizations Would Not Solve the Problem'

"The Iraqi issue that arose [during Secretary Powell's visit to Damascus] was the issue of the Palestinian organizations [in Damascus], which was raised together with the 'road map' and the Iraq issue."

"[The Americans] were convinced that Syria would foster objection and incitement and cause disturbances in Iraq, and that the Palestinian organizations would disrupt the 'road map.' We said that these organizations, which recently arrived, such as Hamas and the [Islamic] Jihad, are conducting informational activities."

"There are Palestinian organizations that have been in Syria for decades conducting political activities that include social and informational [activities]. But these organizations [Hamas and Jihad] are conducting informational activities: They take responsibility for acts or express opposition to particular initiatives. But their true existence is in Palestine, on the West Bank and Gaza. Those truly responsible are on Palestinian land. We agree to the initiative of organizations that acted with great responsibility when the campaign of issuing threats against Syria began, saying: 'We appreciate the Syrian position. We are obliged to stand with Syria and not be a burden. We have decided to end our informational activities.' We thanked them for this…"

"We told the Americans that closing the offices would not solve the problem. Any Palestinian can buy or rent an apartment and hold meetings there or talk on the phone [there]. There's no point in closing the offices, [since] they can conduct this activity anywhere. There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon and other places. They can disrupt any issue."

'We Have No Control Over Hizbullah, Other Than Agreement Over [Their] Right to Resist'

"[The Americans] are always confusing Hizbullah with the Palestinian organizations, and sometimes with Al-Qa'ida. The information they have is not accurate. The Hizbullah issue has no connection with the 'road map.' They raise the Hizbullah issue only when Israel demands that they do so. We said that Hizbullah is a Lebanese, not a Syrian, party. We have ties with most Lebanese factions, maybe with all, but we do not control them. They have their beliefs and we have ours. When our beliefs intersect, we go with them, and they with us. When there are disagreements, we remain silent. If you do not want Hizbullah to respond to Israel, you must put pressure on Israel not to settle in Lebanon, [not to] penetrate Lebanese skies every day and bomb villages, gardens, and fields. We have no control over Hizbullah, other than agreement about the right of resistance."

'It Is Natural [For Us] to Redeploy and Withdraw towards Syrian Land'

"I did not use the term 'withdrawal' [of Syrian troops in Lebanon], but rather 'redeployment.' This issue has been raised a number of times [in talks with the Americans]. The redeployment that has taken place over the last two years proves that the Lebanese army has become capable, and that public institutions have begun to fulfill their roles, or it proves that Lebanese society has recovered. It is natural that we redeploy and withdraw toward Syrian land."

Unconventional Weapons

"In the Security Council, we proposed demilitarizing the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, and the Americans opposed it. We began raising this issue a long time ago, even before we joined the Security Council… but it contradicts American interests. It is our direct and clear interest, and the interest of every country of the region except Israel. When we asked the Americans [about this], they evaded the question."

"We have signed an agreement [for monitoring] nuclear energy [and are subject] to international inspection, like the other nations of the world. But we did not sign other agreements, ones that Israel refused to sign. We must not forget that we are in a state of war with Israel, and we cannot relinquish any weapons used to defend ourselves."

"Israel is supported by the United States, and every arsenal is open to it. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The global balance has changed, and military balance is no longer a relevant issue. We must now reach an inter-Arab [strategic] balance [with Israel]. No single Arab nation can achieve even diplomatic balance [with Israel]. The problem is no longer a strategic balance. The more difficult problem is diplomatic balance and a balance of power in the general sense – the economy, technology, and social resources. We need to strive for this at the Arabic level; Syria alone cannot achieve it."

'In 1974 Hafez Assad Offered the U.S. Excellent Relations; We Still Offer it to All'

"[The Syrian] route in the sixties and seventies was revolutionary, perhaps militant. At the first summit in which I participated, in Cairo in the year 2000, I spoke about balance and about holding the winning cards. But I did not mean war. What change has taken place if the land [that was] occupied in the sixties is [still] occupied today, and may be occupied in the future too?"

"There are sides that will not change if the problems do not change, and we cannot change the problems without first changing our message. It's not enough to change the world, and we can see this [in the world] following September 11. In 1974, President Nixon met with President Hafez Assad. Assad offered the U.S. good, even excellent, relations with [Syria]. The Soviet Union was strong then, as we were after the 1973 war. The situation in the Arab [world] was excellent, and we, nevertheless, made this offer. We are still offering this type of cooperation to all."

'Perhaps Some Iraqi Official Entered Our Borders Illegally, Given That the Syrian-Iraqi Border is Some 500 km Long… Later, They Left Without Our Knowledge'

"We've closed the border with Iraq. When we declared we were closing the border completely, a number of [Iraqi] officials came to the Syrian [Iraqi] border, but we did not allow them to enter. Some are on the [U.S. wanted] list. Perhaps some Iraqi official entered our borders illegally, given that the Syrian-Iraqi border is some 500 km long, and there is a strong tribal connection between the two countries. Later, they left without our knowledge. As it turned out, none of those later captured by the Americans had ever reached Syria, or reached it and left. A large number of these leaders were responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands – or more – Syrians. When this issue came up, we told those responsible in the West that if the U.S. has 500 on its wanted list, we have 150. We extradited no one."

'We Did Not, and Will Not, Turn Over Anyone to the Americans. There May Be Iraqi Officials in Syria that We Are Unaware of. Anything Is Possible'

"One official entered Syria under a false name, but not from Iraq – from another country. We learned about him from the Americans, who asked that we extradite him, but we refused. I think he was captured later in Iraq. We did not turn over, and will not turn over, anyone to the Americans. There may be [Iraqi officials in Syria that we are unaware of]. Anything is possible. It's impossible to stop the movement of goods and people between the countries. [If we capture any of them], we'll send them back to Iraq. We won't do anything to them. We won't turn them over to anyone."

"[Regarding the Iraqi refugees], the first stage was to let in families, and the second stage was to ask various Syrian agencies to check each and every person by name. Could someone responsible for criminal acts enter honorably? He must enter and stand trial… Those who desire to do so can return as citizens, if they were not involved in crimes."

"We had limited connections with the Iraqi government. We did not open an embassy in [Baghdad]. We had some degree of trade and person-to-person relations, but there were no political [relations]. There was no coordination between us regarding Security Council Resolution 1441. We met with Iraqi officials, but we did not host them in our country at the time they were responsible for acts of murder. We do not concern ourselves with the [future] government of Iraq. We take no interest in it. The two neighboring countries have shared interests."

"The situation in Iraq influences us directly. We want the situation in Iraq to be worked out, that is, that the land remain united, the homeland of all its people, as it was in the past, regardless of the ruling government…"

"Iraq is an Arab Muslim nation. [The Americans] are totally opposed to an Islamic government or one that has an Islamic character, and it does not want Iraq to have an Arab character… We cannot determine the character of a religious government. Iran has a religious government, and we have good ties with it. We will not be harmed by a religious government [in Iraq] as long as it does not oppose nationalism. Therefore, I cannot say I want one type of government or another as long as it upholds the values of Arabism and Islam."

'The Iraqis Need to Turn to Arab Countries and Ask For Certain Things'

"Thus far, active opposition [to the Americans in Iraq] has not developed. We need to see what the Iraqi people want. The Iraqis need to turn to Arab countries and ask for certain things. Do they want us to stand with them? It's natural that the Iraqi people will turn to Arab countries for assistance in every area. Why are the [Iraqi] people rebelling? They do not hate the Americans. They want to tell them to leave. We must support the problem and support the Iraqi people in their daily lives. There are many ways of doing this. I do not mean we should support the resistance with weapons. I want to make this point clear so that it will not be misunderstood. We are supporting the problem, but we do not know what the Iraqi citizen wants. There is no one to represent him. There are diplomatic proposals, there are resistance activities, and there is anarchy. With whom should we operate? Who should we support, and how?"

'The Petition [Recently Sent to Assad Calling for Reform in Syria] Is No Different From What I Proposed'

"The petition [recently sent to Assad calling for internal reform]… has over two hundred signatures, and it is no different from what I proposed. I proposed [it] in my inaugural speech, and I've been consistently proposing it. It's natural that the citizens have immediate demands, and, as a country, this is what we need to aim for. That is our role. It's clear that when any sort of achievement is delayed, it will have to be accomplished [later]. We are marching forward. We must not forget that what happened in Iraq caused worry."

'I'm One of Those Who Were Hurt Morally by What Happened in Iraq'

"I'm one of those who were hurt morally by what happened in Iraq. It caused us to think about how to open our countries. This has no connection with the U.S. The U.S. is a superpower, and whether or not it is present in Iraq doesn't matter. It can come by sea or by way of Israel. No one seriously thinks about reform unless he is shocked [by something], and that does not justify reform."

"The need for reform is ongoing. At a time of crisis, we ask ourselves why we did not carry out reforms in a certain area [earlier]. But reform [must] come before a crisis [occurs] and not after it. We should not institute reforms in response to what happened in Iraq or out of fear of what might happen there. The two have no connection. [The Americans] did not come to Iraq because it wasn't democratic, and not in order to create a democracy [there]… On the other hand, there is always a need for reform…"

[1] The Syrian Press Agency, SANA, June 10, 2003.

[2] The reference is to the Saudi initiative discussed at the Beirut summit in March, 2002.

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