On June 12th and 13th, 2000, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a comprehensive interview with Bashar Al-Assad, which was conducted before his father’s death. Some of the answers were directly attributed to Bashar, while others were attributed by the interviewers – 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, Ibrahim 'Awadh and Dr. Sa'd allah Al-Agha – to "The Syrian source." The Palestinian Jerusalem daily Al-Quds published this interview on June 13 and 14, 2000.
The Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu', republished their interview with Bashar Al-Assad (see MEMRI Israel's Defeat is the Beginning of a New Arab History, June 11, 2000) with two additions. Following are excerpts from the interviews:
"Q: How do you rank the issues of dispute between Syria and Israel?
Bashar Al-Assad: Israel ranks her priorities in the following way: security, land, and water. But the truth is different. They consider water to be the most important [issue]. On security, Israel has always been the aggressor. The balance of power is in its favor. Israel has the most developed intelligence systems enabling it to get early warning. It can use satellites, [too]. Therefore, its security arguments are false. As for land, Syria made it clear from the beginning that it would never negotiate [away] even the smallest piece of her soil. Israel said it accepts this condition as a matter of principle. This is how the peace process began. As for the water, they [i.e. Israel] raise faulty excuses, such as fear that Syria will pollute the lake of Tiberias, or use its waters, although the lake is a reservoir of water, not a source in itself. Therefore, it makes no difference [whether] we are 10 meters or 300 meters away from its shores, as the Israelis propose. Anyway, discussing this matter now is premature and its turn will come only after the land issue -- which is the basis for the whole process -- is discussed.
'The Syrian source:' 40% of the [lake's] water emanates from the Golan, namely from Syria. Therefore, the water problem is in Syria's hands.
Q: Will Syria agree to cut the number of her troops when the peace agreement is signed?
Bashar Al-Assad: Armies are not only for offensives. Rather, they are a part of the security needs of any [given] state. An army's size is usually determined by the threats [it faces]. If a peace agreement is signed, the army's size may be restricted.
'The Syrian source:' The troops' scope has nothing to do with peace. Switzerland [has a big army] but is a neutral state.
Q: When a peace agreement is signed, will the Syrian troops be re-deployed behind Damascus, as Israel demands?
'The Syrian source:' No. Under no circumstances will our troops withdraw [north of] Damascus, whatever the reasons.
Q: Do you expect peace to be achieved within a year or two?
'The Syrian source:' The Syrian people trust their president and they authorized him to sign a peace agreement on their behalf. The Syrian public is convinced that Barak is not serious about the peace process and that he cannot make decisions because his weakness increases daily. This makes it hard for him to make the critical decisions needed.
Q: Syria is the one who stopped the peace process for many years. [Does] Syria stand behind the opposition to normalization and impose limitations on the Gulf states?
Bashar Al-Assad: …The question creates the impression that the Gulf states are anxious to [normalize] with Israel, and Syria harms this process, which is also wrong. The Gulf states, as well as the other Arab states, have their own principles, and they act according to these principles. If these principles are in line with the Syrian position, then it is because of their own belief in the justice of the Syrian position and their awareness that the National Pan-Arab interest can [only] be realized through a comprehensive and just peace.
After Israel's Withdrawal
Q: Will Hizbullah be disarmed and turned into a political movement?
Bashar Al-Assad: Hizbullah is the avant-garde of the [Lebanese] resistance movement. It is also a Lebanese political party, with representatives in the Lebanese parliament. It is understandable that after a full Israeli withdrawal, Hizbullah will continue to play a role in Lebanese political life. Yet, it does not mean that it will put down its arms. The Israeli withdrawal is a solution to the problem of Israel's occupation of Lebanon. Yet, it does not abolish the constant Israeli threat to Lebanon, as long as there is no progress in the consecutive stages in the Arab-Israeli conflict… namely, in the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon and their return to their homes - and afterwards a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arabs.
Q: What is the task of Hizbullah in the Lebanese arena?
Bashar Al-Assad: Hizbullah is not a militia. Its leadership has announced, that it will not [become] a substitute for the Lebanese government. Regarding its members -- amongst whom are workers, academics, physicians and engineers -- they will continue to hold their positions like any other Lebanese citizen, while at the same time they will be on constant alert to meet any threat of Israeli aggression again.
Q: Does Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon signify the achievement of the goal for which Syrian troops are staying in Lebanon?
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Bashar Al-Assad: We do not stay in Lebanon, just to stay there. The Syrian forces arrived in Lebanon before the Israeli invasion, in response to a request from the Lebanese government. That happened after the civil war in Lebanon had reached a point where the state lost all control of what was happening and there was a danger to the existence of the Lebanese state. The Syrian troops stayed in Lebanon because it was a Lebanese necessity for the enforcement of internal peace and security in Lebanon. The presence of our troops in Lebanon costs us a lot. Nevertheless, we are prepared to continue assisting our Lebanese brethren.
Q: When will the Syrian presence end?
Bashar Al-Assad: As soon as the legitimate Lebanese government is convinced that the conditions have ripened and that Lebanon is able to maintain stability on its own... Then, the Syrian forces will return to… their homeland.
Q: Speaking frankly, some say that no Lebanese official would ever dare to ask Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. Who would make this request and how would it be phrased?
Bashar Al-Assad: This is not true. President Lahoud is a patriot and he favors the interests of his country above any other interests. He is capable of making any decision that suits the interests of his country. We support him in every decision he makes in the interests of Lebanon.
Q: Do you feel that the Lebanese fear that your presence in Lebanon may be permanent?
'The Syrian source:' Don't forget that Lebanon had [long] periods of internal strife. In the course of these wars, [some] Lebanese citizens invited Syria to annex large parts of the country to the Syrian state, in order to establish [their own state] on the remaining parts. Nevertheless, Syria [always] refused to see Lebanon divided or abolished. Moreover, Syria defended Lebanon…. These claims have no basis…. Their intention is to drive a wedge between Syria and Lebanon.
Q: What about the Palestinians [in Lebanon] and the rumors that they are arming in order to carry out military operations against Israel?
Bashar Al-Assad: This situation [of armed Palestinians] is a time bomb for the area, in addition to its [negative] impact on Lebanon's internal situation. Defusing this bomb can only be done within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement.
'The Syrian source:' Accusing Syria of arming the Palestinians is a distortion of well-known facts. The Palestinians in their camps were always armed, for security reasons and due to their circumstances. Israel knows that it is in a state of constant confrontation with the Palestinians who reject the disgraceful terms of Oslo…
Q: What is your position on the Shab'a Farms? Is it Syrian or Lebanese?
Bashar Al-Assad: Politically, Israel is required to return these Farms to Lebanon, which insists that it owns them. Syria supports Lebanon's demand by declaring that the 'Shab'a Farms' are Lebanese territory. This means that there is no dispute about that issue between Syria and Lebanon. Legally, Syria and Lebanon have to present documents that confirm their claims, because according to the UN, the Shab'a Farms are Syrian territory and the UN included them within the jurisdiction of Resolution 242.
Q: How can Syria doubt the ability of UN forces to handle the situation in South Lebanon, while not doubting their ability to handle the situation in the Golan Heights? Isn't there a contradiction here?
Bashar Al-Assad: The role of the UN forces in the Golan is different from their intended role in Lebanon. In the Golan, it is restricted to the supervision of the ceasefire between Syria and Israel and the submission of [periodic] reports to the UN. In Lebanon, on the other hand, these forces will have operational [authority]. [We have to ask:] for whose benefit?
Q: Some countries implore Lebanon to send its army to the south. What is Syria's position?
'The Syrian source:' This is an internal Lebanese issue. Lebanon is a sovereign country. No country has the right to decide for another country what it has to do. Israel has not withdrawn fully [from Lebanon]. Lebanon shall decide what measures to take at the proper time.
Fighting Corruption in Syria
Q: The death of former PM Mahmoud Al-Zu'bi was a surprise to many. There are rumors about its circumstances. Is it true that he committed suicide?
'The Syrian source:' Yes, it is certain.
Q: Some claim that the whole 'suicide story' is only a 'cover story.' Is it reasonable for a 63 year old man to commit suicide?
'The Syrian source:' It is certain that it was a suicide. I heard stories that he was murdered by those who feared he would reveal the secrets of his partners in corruption. These stories are illogical, because some people, amongst them the former minister of transportation, were [already] in jail on corruption charges. Others are still being interrogated, like the PM's secretary for economic affairs. Al-Zu'bi committed suicide. Everything that was published regarding his death is true. Had there been an intention to lie about the circumstances of his death -- it wouldn't have been hard to claim he died a natural death.
Q: There is an embarrassing question. How is it that a PM is arrested on corruption charges after he has been in office for nearly 13 years? Why didn't you settle this issue after he was in office for seven years, for example? Where were the security forces all this time? Isn't he a scapegoat?
'The Syrian source:' Mahmoud Al-Zu'bi was not a scapegoat. He may not have been corrupt from the first year he was in office. He might have become corrupt only recently, a few years ago. It is also possible that there wasn't enough evidence to try him before his arrest. No one should be arrested on the basis of mere rumors.
The Ba'ath Party in the Third Millenium
Q: The world has changed and many parties have disappeared. How do you see the [future] role of the Ba'ath party?
Bashar Al-Assad: In every party …one has to distinguish between ideology and its realization. The ideology of the Ba'ath party is based on three principles: Unity, Freedom, and Socialism. All three have remained important. For unity, take the EU for example: European states, of many different nationalities, are all striving to achieve economic unity that might lead to a unity of another kind. This is also the case with East and West Germany, which were united after decades of separation. It is most natural that the Arabs should also have a principle of unity, and that they should strive and endeavor to realize it in various ways and different stages. As for freedom, it is everybody's aspiration.
Q: What about the Socialist part?
Bashar Al-Assad: Socialism also continues to exist in many countries. In France, we see that the socialists are one of the strongest parties. The 'Labor' party in Britain has socialist roots and Communist China is on track for successful and continuous economical growth... The efficacy of these ideological principles lies in their continuous development and adjustment to reality. Therefore, we should always focus on their realization, which, in most cases, is the factor that determines either failure or success.
Modernization in Syria
Q: What is your economic vision? Do you see any chance of privatization?
Bashar Al-Assad: Considering privatization, the social factor has to be considered. Privatization means downsizing. How can privatization be realized when 300,000 babies are born and 200,000 new employees enter the labor market every year? Our situation is different from that of many other countries in the West or Japan, whose natural growth is almost zero. The process of privatization creates the need to retrain unemployed people for new jobs. We must strive to raise our level of production. [Only] then will it be possible to consider privatization. Anyhow, this issue is not a priority at this stage.
Q: What limitations are there on the technological modernization of Syria?
Bashar Al-Assad: Syria is now in the middle of technological modernizing. No limitations whatsoever exist on the possesion of any kind of communication systems, such as the Internet, mobile telephones, etc. The only limitation is the existing infrastructure.
Q: How then should the increase in the prices of communication services be understood?
'The Syrian source:' This increase is a result of economic conditions. The mobile telephone is new in Syria. That is the reason for its [high] price: $1200. When this telephone appeared for the first time in Saudi Arabia, its price was $3000. At this stage the mobile telephone is an experimental project. When it covers all of Syria, its prices will be accessible to anyone who needs it. Anyway, in the new government there is a minister for technological development, whose task is to focus on modernization…"
A Threat to Israel
The Egyptian Magazine, Al-Usbu' reprinted its June 12 interview with Bashar Al-Assad (see MEMRI Israel's Defeat is the Beginning of a New Arab History, June 11, 2000) with the following additions:
"Syria will not withdraw its right to the northeastern shore of the lake of Tiberias, and the ensuing rights [meaning water rights].
[As to] the Shab'a Farms, this is Lebanese land and Israel has no choice but to withdraw from it. If [Israel] wants quiet borders, it should not forget that the northern part of Israel bordering Lebanon is an area of Israeli technological industry. Israel cannot afford the damage and the casualties from Katyusha rockets, neither economically, nor in [casualties to] the population."