May 31, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 510

Kuwaiti Newspaper Interview with Bashar Al-Assad

May 31, 2003
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 510

In an interview [1] with Bibi Khaled Al-Marzouk, editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anbaa, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad discussed the implications of the war in Iraq, the renewed peace process, global terrorism, and reform in Syria. The following are excerpts from the interview:

'The Only Problem Between Syria and the U.S. is Israel'

"The only problem between us and the United States is the Israel issue. America will be satisfied with Syria and the other Arab countries [only] when Israel is satisfied with them. On the bilateral level, there is no problem. They [the Americans] always promise and never deliver, as Israel's [status] in the U.S. is strong… We have told the Americans that the dispute between us and them is the Israeli interest… Israel occupies our land, and Syria must protect its interests. The U.S. is an influential power; relations with it must be direct, and not through Israel."

'We Don't Interfere in Domestic Palestinian Matters'

"Since the Oslo accords, there has been no coordination at all [between Syria and the Palestinians], nor does there appear to be a desire for coordination on the part of (factions) in the Palestinian Authority."

"We do not interfere in domestic Palestinian matters. The establishment of the [Palestinian] government is a domestic matter. We don't interfere in it, and there is no need for coordination."

"The roadmap has three phases, and Syria and Lebanon are [mentioned] in the second phase. We don't know what Syria's and Lebanon's connection is [to the roadmap, as] the roadmap deals with the Palestinian track."

"Why were Syria and Lebanon placed in the second phase? If there is coordination between the tracks, they would start simultaneously. Each track has its sensitive points. The roadmap deals with the Palestinians, and Syria and Lebanon are mentioned in it in passing. We want to return to the Madrid principles and [U.N. Security Council] Resolutions 242 and 338. The Americans and Europeans support this proposal. They didn't cancel Madrid, and didn't retract the guarantees that were given [to us] there, but brought nothing."

'After the War the UN and the EU Were Wiped Out of the World Political Map'

"We support the European Union's playing a role, not as a substitute for the U.S. but in coordination with it. Whether the subject is peace or other matters, other superpowers cannot play an active role without coordinating with [the U.S.]. There are aspects linked to the cultural dimension, in which the U.S. cannot act alone."

"Perhaps because of the domestic elections in the U.S., and perhaps because of the role of the Zionist lobby in America, there are matters to which the U.S. is unable to give [this issue] the proper importance."

"The E.U., Russia, China, and Japan can play an auxiliary role. After the war [in Iraq], the U.N. and the E.U. were wiped off the face of the world political map. The U.N. is no longer politically active, and the E.U. has been very much weakened. Other forces were banished from the map, and a vacuum was created. They [the Americans] do not know how to run Iraq, a relatively small country... There is a vacuum in Iraq, in the region, and in the world, as no power is allowed to intervene. We want the U.N. and the E.U. to be active."

Is There Really Such an Organization [Like Al-Qa'ida]?

"They say there's a connection between what happened in Saudi Arabia and Morocco – that there's a message in it. But what is the message? I cannot believe that bin Laden is managing to prevail over the entire world. All the countries in the world, headed by the U.S., fight against bin Laden. He cannot talk on the telephone or use the Internet, but he manages to contact the four corners of the earth. This is illogical and unrealistic. How can he possibly plan this way, and how does he succeed in acting? With regard to Al-Qa'ida, is there really such an organization? It was in Afghanistan; does it still exist?"

"[But] the matter is graver than bin Laden or Al-Qa'ida. There is an ideological [Islamic] stream, this is an ideological matter, and no longer a matter of organizations. If nine or 10 people or groups go out to commit suicide in this way, it is not about an organization… These are groups living in different countries, of different nationalities, Arabs and non-Arabs, but belonging to the same ideological stream and acting in coordination with each other. Such a stream cannot exist without a fixed, stable social base on an ideological level… from which its members draw strength. This problem must be handled from a social [standpoint], not a security [standpoint]…"

Had the Lebanese Majority Seen the Syrian Military in Lebanon As An Occupier, I Would Leave

"Had the calls [against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon] constituted a majority, we would not remain there for even a single day. That is clear. Had the [Lebanese] majority seen the Syrian [military] as [an] occupier – I would leave [Lebanon]. No army can remain [in the occupied land] against the will of the citizens."

"The Lebanese people does not accept [the term] 'occupation' [with regard to Syria] in its literal meaning. Were this not the case, why would they have fought the Israeli occupation and not the Syrian 'occupation?' Lebanon is a neighboring Arab country and there is a mixing of interests and families [between Syria and Lebanon]. Even the civil war and the cantons could not isolate Syria from Lebanon. The [common] interests exist, whether we like it or not."

"Syria sees Lebanon as an independent country. Lebanon has long since passed the danger of civil war… Sometimes the [Syrian] redeployment is perceived as a repositioning of forces in Lebanon, but it is not: Some of the redeployment was a withdrawal to Syria. This proves that Lebanon is capable of defending its security, and it happened in coordination with the Lebanese leadership and top officials. The Israeli aggression constitutes a danger to Syria and Lebanon, and this is the common interest between them."

'We Will Continue to Support Hizbullah '

"Hizbullah is a Lebanese resistance party, and it plays a role in the Lebanese lands as a resistance [movement]. Besides this, it plays a political role, and this is a purely Lebanese matter. However, as a resistance [movement], its role is limited to the Lebanese lands. We have told the Americans that when Israel stops its continuing provocation and aggression there will be no activity whatsoever on the part of Hizbullah; this was said by top Hizbullah officials."

"They did not start it and they did not attack. Israel attacks, and they respond. As long as this is the context, we will continue supporting Hizbullah. [Iranian president Mohammad Khatami] did not say that he wanted to annihilate Israel, and did not [say that he] was opposed to Syria's [entering] the peace process. He said that they want to liberate every inch of Lebanese land, and we cannot be against him – and the same goes for the Lebanese people. Otherwise Hizbullah would not succeed in its deeds."

On Reform in Syria: 'The Main Basis of All Developments, in Any Direction, is Dialogue'

"When we speak of reform in any country, it must not be connected with crisis, but with the country's need for reform… Reform must be done out of belief and will, and not because of a crisis... President Hafez Al-Assad began reform in stages. I was a citizen before I was appointed president, and as such I was a free democrat, and expressed my ideas. When I delivered my inaugural speech as president, I expressed my ideas as a citizen and as a president. A decision-maker must take into account all the factors in our country, and not only his [own] ideas. If these factors are incompatible with the ideas, the process will fail."

"It is true that there is a slowdown [in Syria's reform], but there are reasons for this. Every activity with an ideological basis that we want to carry out, primarily in the social and national spheres, must link between the political proposal and the social construction within a society. Every activity must focus on social construction. It is natural that in a society with various trends someone will push in the right direction, and someone will push in the opposite direction. These deeds have both a positive and negative influence."

"This does not mean that I have changed, or that I am not working to implement my words and my thoughts as a citizen… Everyone thinks that his ideas are right, and hopes that they are compatible with the regime's position, but this is not simple…"

"The main basis of all developments, in any direction, is dialogue. We want to create dialogue, and such dialogue needs to develop in the home, in society, in the school, in the university, everywhere. Dialogue between the state and the citizen, between the state and the other institutions. There is no boundary to dialogue, and this is what we want. Dialogue is what will determine the final form of this development. As long as there is dialogue, this is the most important point."

"In Syria, there are clubs where the intellectuals meet, but dialogue has no boundaries and it is not possible to say that a particular body is suitable or not suitable [for dialogue]. It is not possible to develop everything all at once. There is a need to set priorities, so that there will be breakthroughs in certain areas."

'There is no Similarity between the Syrian and the Iraqi Ba'ath'

"In every party or ideology, the core must be examined. There are many matters, some erroneous and some correct, that arise in a party's platform. Communists are not the same all over the world. Every concept we use in Syria expresses the interest of the state, not vice versa. We change the concepts according to the interest of the state, and do not change the state according to the concepts. Therefore, we always think, first of all, of the state."

"Things are different in the case of Iraq. The core of the Ba'ath party is the National Arab Party, that believes in pan-Arabism, and all the rest are additions, in which some people believe and some do not. There are national parties and streams that perhaps do not believe in socialism. There are streams that do believe, but the core is the national core. The party will rise or fall if the idea within it is suitable or unsuitable to the general idea in the region. Is the Arab street nationalist? If so, then there is room for such a party. If the Arab street is not nationalist, the party will fail."

"I think that this core is suitable to the popular situation [in Syria]. Action is what brings about the party's success or failure. A party must not stagnate… I see no connection between the experience of the Ba'ath party in Iraq and in Syria. If there was such a connection, we would not be so different from each other, and [there would not be] bloodshed [between us]."

"There is no similarity [between the Syrian Ba'ath and the Iraqi Ba'ath] and anyone who thought like us [in Iraq] was executed. Is there a connection between Islam and what is happening in Afghanistan and the recent explosions in Morocco and Saudi Arabia [that were carried out] in the name of Islam? This is terrorism in the name of Islam. Even the killing in Iraq is a crime in the name of nationalism."

'We Will Not Defend Ourselves by Saying We Did Not Support Saddam'

"In principle, our official position is the position of every Arab country – opposition to any occupation… Our position today is that the occupation of Iraq, regardless of Saddam, is unacceptable. Iraq is not Saddam. There is no need to say [today] that we were opposed to Saddam, we had long disputes, and it is known that at some stage Saddam supported the riots in Syria. But we want to look ahead… In addition, we are Iraq's neighbor, and the war has a direct effect on Syria and on all Iraq's neighbors, and therefore it was natural for us to oppose the war. Now we are feeling the effect."

"We have differentiated between two matters: Syria's position towards the [Iraqi] regime and towards Iraq, and our position towards Iraq and towards Kuwait… There is no connection between our opposition to the war [in Iraq] and our opposition to Kuwait: On the contrary. These two matters are unconnected [to] each other. We might have disputes with Kuwait or any other Arab country, and this has no connection with our position towards Iraq."

"We will not defend ourselves by saying we did not support Saddam, but we think that all the Arab states know the position of Syria regarding Saddam and his regime, and as proof, we did not establish an embassy there [in Baghdad]."

"We had economic ties [with Iraq], and we clarified the essence of [these ties] to our people and to the rest of the peoples, primarily the Kuwaiti brethren, who were baffled by these ties. We told them that our position is similar to our position regarding the invasion of Kuwait, and that this has not changed: Had we felt that the Iraqi threat to Kuwait would have restored the situation to the way it was in 1990, we would have cut off ties with Saddam's regime and defended Kuwait."

"Renewing relations [with Iraq] is not an indication of change. We have always expressed support of the Iraqi people, but not of the Iraqi regime…It is obvious that there are principles on which we must focus: unity of the land of Iraq; withdrawal of the foreign and occupation forces, as soon as possible; freedom of the Iraqi people to decide its future; the Iraqi people's money and resources [should] belong to it. We must not deviate from these principles."

'We Have a Direct and Ongoing Dialogue with the Kurdish Parties'

"There is direct and ongoing dialogue and a stable relationship between us and the Kurdish party – that is, with the two main parties – and their statements prove they are part of the united Iraq."

"Obviously, they have demands… and this must be examined with the future Iraqi government. We do not interfere in the affairs of the Kurds. Iraq is now in a situation of anarchy and vacuum. Everyone is paying the price…"

[1] Syrian News Agency, May 25, 2003.

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