October 15, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 589

Syrian President Al-Assad Interviewed by Al-Hayat

October 15, 2003
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 589

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was recently interviewed by the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. In the interview, he discussed Syrian-U.S. relations, the Israel-Lebanon border, the situation in Iraq, and the possibility of an agreement with Israel. The following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

The Israeli Bombing Near Damascus

"This [attack] was an attempt by the Israeli government to free itself from its great distress via an attempt to terrorize Syria and drag it and the entire region into another war, since this government is a war government and war is its raison d'ệtre. There is no doubt that the role played by Syria in the various issues on the agenda in our region pains the Israeli government. [The Israeli attack] is a failed attempt to damage this role. What happened will only cause the Syrian role to become more active, in contrast to this government's wish."

The Syria-U.S. Dialogue

"The U.S. is in a disagreement with countries in the world, and we are one of these countries. If we resist the occupation of Iraq, and the U.S. supports its occupation of Iraq, this is an additional point of disagreement. The conflict [between us and the U.S.] began since the Iraqi matter arose. In the Iran-Iraq war there was real disagreement: while other countries supported the war [i.e. the U.S.], we opposed it… Perhaps at a particular moment it appeared that [there was agreement between us and the U.S.] due to Syria's participation in the coalition [to liberate Kuwait], but in this participation [Syria] had goals that were different [than those of the U.S.]. Our starting point was the joint Arab defense agreement, and I do not think that this was also the American principle – otherwise it would have gone to war to liberate the Golan or any other Arab land…

"The [Syrian-U.S.] dialogue continues. I do not think it must cease under any circumstances… On terror, for example, we do not disagree. We do differ on the subject of terror, but as a principle or a concern [of both countries], we agree. We do not want to disagree with the U.S. or with any other country. We always strive for agreement, and dialogue is the best way to agreement… The Americans want dialogue, but sometimes, even where there is a reciprocal desire for dialogue, differences in mentality, principles, and culture emerge…"

Europe Understands

"Europe understands the region better than the Americans. In our dialogue with Europe on the matter of Iraq or the matter of peace, they are closer to our position, and sometimes there is consensus on various issues. This proximity in understanding and position must be utilized to convey the picture to the Americans, and the Europeans can convey the picture and [the correct] viewpoint better than the Arab countries because of the culture gap. Europe is close to us, and our interests are mutual. Some Arab countries have better relations with the U.S. than other Arab countries. They do not clash with the U.S., and perhaps [the U.S.] listens to them better. These countries can help bring together the points of view of Syria and the U.S., as well as those of any Arab country and other countries."

The Syria Accountability Act

"The Syria Accountability Act has two aspects: [One is] a dispute between the [U.S.] administration – which does not want the act, and the other forces in Congress and the Israeli 'lobby' outside Congress – which support it. [The other aspect is] a dispute within the administration itself, between the forces supporting the act and the forces opposed to it. This is how we view the act. Its content is [in any case] applied [already,] generally speaking. The siege on Syria, the prevention of [sales of] technology [to Syria], and the attempt to apply economic pressure on Syria, [already] exists.

"The political dimension is a different matter. At the same time, [it must be remembered] that there are no trade or economic ties between Syria and the U.S. aside from American oil companies that invest in Syria, whose size and number are limited. The damage will not be to Syria, but to these companies. Apart from this, I do not think any additional damage could be done [to Syria] by this act.

"[Syria] is not a superpower, but [it] is not a weak country either. We have cards; we are not a country that can be ignored. The truth is that even if America fails in the Far East or in South America, it will [blame] Syria and Iran. This has become an axiom… Iraq was the U.S.'s escape from Afghanistan, the attack on Syria is an escape from the [U.S.'s] distress in Iraq. They fail in one place and move the battle to another place. Sometimes they [use] military action, and sometimes [they use] diplomatic and information [action]. That is the nature of American threats on Syria and Iran. The greater the threats, the more they indicate American entanglement [somewhere else.]"

American Demands on Syria

"The American demands are, as usual, undefined, both in quantity and in quality. Sometimes they contradict each other… [The Americans] demand that we disarm [ourselves of] weapons of mass destruction, and when we demand WMD disarmament in the [entire] region, they resist. [They] have many demands, but what interests us is whether these demands correspond with Syrian interests or not.

"I think that their most important demand relates to the Palestinian organizations. They asked several times and in several ways that we expel the leaders of the organizations, [but] these are not the leaders of the organizations rather, they are top officials in the Palestinian organizations, while the leaders are in the occupied lands. We opposed expulsion, of course, and for several reasons – first of all, out of principle, as these figures have broken no Syrian laws, have harmed no Syrian interests, and, first and foremost, [they] are not terrorists."

The Situation in Iraq and on Its Borders

"There is a contradiction within American statements [that Iraq has become the main battlefield against international terrorism]. [The Americans] were not present in Afghanistan, and there was terror there, and then they went [there] on the pretext of a war on terror. So far, they have fought nothing and have achieved nothing. But they continued on to Iraq before [there was] terror [there] and the terror reached [Iraq] with the American presence. So what about the countries where the U.S. has no presence? According to American logic, terror will be more widespread in them. The logical claim is that the entire world has become an arena for the struggle against terror, and not [only] Iraq or Afghanistan… There are terrorists in America, and in Europe. Are America and Europe main arenas for terror? The entire world is an arena for terror, not only Iraq.

"Since the occupation in Iraq began, we have called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, and this will remain the Syrian position.

"Not long ago we met with a delegation of the [Iraqi] tribes representing all the classes, and we heard them speaking in one language. There are no conflicting languages and no conflicting ideas. There is no ground for civil war to take place [in Iraq]. The continuation of the anarchy is leading perhaps to something that we do not know, but I personally am optimistic and believe that there will be no clash among the Iraqi people…"

The Only Solution – An Iraqi Elected Government

"What is needed is an Iraqi government elected by the Iraqi people, and an Iraqi constitution drawn by the Iraqi people. There is no other solution. We have not spoken of the matter of an [Iraqi] federation, but of partition. What we saw is the opposite: we heard no Iraqi leader from any faction seeking partition. As for the final form that Iraq will take, it is an Iraqi issue, and we cannot determine it. We want a united Iraq, and I do not think that there is an Iraqi that does not want this. We have heard no proposal that worries us. The proposal for federation and other proposals belong to the media…

"There is always smuggling, of people or of goods on the border, be they permitted or prohibited, of all kinds. When the security situation is unstable, and there is a state of war, occupation, and anarchy, as is happening now in Iraq, it is natural for the number of [infiltrations] to multiply… This is also the situation between Iraq and its [other] neighbors, and between Iraq and its Arab neighbors. There is great anarchy, weapons smuggling, and smuggling of people whose identity we do not know. The Americans, say of course, that they are terrorists. As far as they are concerned, everyone is a terrorist. Maybe they think every Arab is a terrorist… In Iraq there is currently no state and no regime – with whom can we cooperate? Who is responsible for the war on terror?"

Syrian-Iranian Relations

"The word 'interference' [with regard to Iran's role in Iraq] means an undesired role. If the role is desired, then it is not interference. In order to know whether it is interference, we must ask the Iraqis. I did not hear this word [from them], and in light of what I did hear from the top Iranian officials, I don't think that they want anything except what I spoke of regarding relations with Iraq… I see only the positive picture. The Iranian position is similar to the Syrian position: withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, Iraqi independence, a constitution, and a government..."

The European Community

"The European community's move [to include the Hamas political leadership on the list of terrorist organizations] greatly weakened [the European community's] role in the peace process. When you want to play a role in a particular arena, you need forces that are in control. As I said clearly to a European official: 'It doesn't matter if you call a particular force terrorist or not; it is there, in the field, and you have no choice but to relate to it.'

"I think Europe has greatly weakened itself, especially in the Palestinian arena, and has lost some of its credibility – since the Europeans, in particular, know that Israel perpetrates terror operations. In their meetings with us they said that Sharon does not want peace and that it is the Israeli government that damages every peace initiative. How can there be such a contradiction in positions? This weakens the European position…"

Syrian – PA Relations

"There are limited contacts and meetings between Syrian and PA leadership. The Syrian position supports the [Palestinian] cause, and we do not interfere in domestic matters. We do not support one authority or another. We support the [Palestinian] cause, and our position is known and has not changed. At the start of the peace process, we believed there could be coordination, and that the Arab track – that is, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian – could be united, until the Oslo accords came and separated the tracks.

"Now there is nothing in the peace process to make the tracks converge, except for the Palestinian refugee problem, the fate of which is tied to a Syrian-Lebanese agreement with the Israelis, or a Palestinian-Israeli [agreement]. That is the only thing linking these two tracks. Apart from this issue, there is total disconnection, in method and in direction between the two. What unites us is the refugee issue. Of course, there is another issue, unrelated to the track, and that is that Syria, naturally, takes an interest in the Palestinian people in the '48 and '67 territories; but we have no authority, since the PA is responsible for this. We are always ready to play any part to serve them… [but] there is no coordination and no contact, the principles differ, and there are different sources of authority.

"As far as Syria is concerned, the primary basis for the peace process is the Madrid [conference]. What happened on the Palestinian track is the following: every source of authority led to another source of authority. Every small initiative, the latest of which is the road map, is considered a new source of authority that abrogates everything that preceded it, even Oslo, while Syria to this day adheres to the source of authority of Madrid. Immediately after the release of the road map, we told all the officials with whom we were in close contact that Syria and Lebanon have no connection to it. What is the road map? The road map has stages and steps… There is one step for Syria and Lebanon, to sketch out the borders and the withdrawal. There are no other steps."

On the Possibility of a Peace Agreement with Israel

"There are several aspects to such an agreement: mutual relations, security arrangements, and all the other details. It is the people, and not the country, that determines what form of peace will exist. We are offering 'Ordinary Relations.' We emphasize the word 'Ordinary,' that is, like the situation between Syria and Britain, for example: We had agreements and disagreements… we exchanged ambassadors, and when a conflict broke out between us we called back the ambassadors.

"The Israelis, for example, have certain [international] agreements which do not permit [calling] back [an] ambassador. These relations are not ordinary. It is not logical that a country does not have the right to decide whether to warm up relations or cool them down. Ordinary relations are subject to interests and to national developments between two countries. They want to impose warm relations between Syria and Israel. Warm relations are determined by people and not by the state…

"No one believes that peace is possible with this Israeli government… I think that this is an international view, not only a Syrian [view]."

The Situation in Lebanon

"It is natural that there always be redeployment in Lebanon in accordance with Lebanon's ability to take the place of the Syrian forces. Most of the redeployment was on Lebanese land. The timing, the method, and the scope are technical, not political, matters. This matter will be carried out directly between the armies, and political leaderships are not involved. The political decision is made by Syria and Lebanon together…

"Lebanon has no border with the U.S., so [the redeployment] cannot be an American demand. Thus, it is an Israeli demand. Is the goal to pressure Syria? In any event, there is only one answer: this is a Syrian-Lebanese matter, and we will not discuss it with others. The ones to decide it will be us and the Lebanese. The Americans and Israelis have no connection to this matter, now or in the future…

"We told the Americans: When you pressure Israel and it stops its violations, there will be no Lebanese response… Hizbullah is not the one that starts or wants escalation. Hizbullah says: 'We will respond.' The one who starts the escalation is the one who can calm it, and it is connected to Israel. [Israel] is the one who starts it and it is the one who stops. It is natural that there be a Lebanese response. Syria plays no part…

"We support the 'resistance' in Lebanon. Must I be ashamed of it? We supported and still support the 'resistance,' until Israel withdraws from the Shab'a Farms as well. We do not support the 'resistance' because we love this group or that faction, [but] because this is the principle of which we always speak. As long as the problem of the occupation of part of the lands exists, and the Lebanese want to liberate these lands, we will support the 'resistance' without shame."

[1] Al Hayat (London), October 7, 2003.

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