October 4, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 584

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: 'Terrorism is a State of Mind'

October 4, 2003
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 584

Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, in a recent interview with the Italian daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, discussed his country's role in Iraq, its complex relationship with the U.S., the 'road map,' weapons of mass destruction, and human rights in Syria. The following are excerpts from the interview which was conducted by Antonio Ferrari: [1]

Question: "The U.S.A. keeps accusing you of destabilizing Iraq, of sending fighters, of hiding weapons of mass destruction. The list of allegations is becoming long and dangerous. Do you not fear that your country will become the target of the next war?"

Al-Assad: "I do not think that the U.S. has an interest in repeating the errors committed in Iraq. Apart from the accusations [of some in the U.S., not of the entire U.S. administration], we had no tangible signals of a military threat. Worried? Yes, we are. Not by the threats but by the results of the war in Iraq which had serious repercussions in the political, economic, social, and security spheres. Furthermore, the accusations against Syria began before the conflict. You see, our relationship with the U.S. has several dimensions: positive, as in fighting terrorism together; problematic, when we talk of Palestinian organizations or how to reach peace."

Question: "The U.S. also accuses you of producing prohibited weapons."

Al-Assad: "Immediately after the war, they began to talk about weapons of mass destruction in Syria. The answer is in the UN Security Council where a draft resolution to free the entire Middle East from prohibited weapons is pending. Our detractors are angry with us; they accuse us of possessing these weapons. But they were even angrier when we proposed, months before the war, to eliminate them from the whole region. What then do they want? We say: faced with an international written commitment, Syria would be extremely swift to make this effort a success. But the obligation must apply to all, without exception."

Question: " If you were meeting President Bush, what would you say to convince him that the allegations against Syria are false?"

Al-Assad: "He should explain to me why these allegations are true. I would then ask him where the weapons of mass destruction are in Iraq, because at this point it is clear that they do not exist. Even in the States there are institutions that openly doubt it. Then I would ask him where the democracy was that he had promised Iraq, and where the better living conditions are that were pledged. Many Iraqis, beginning with Saddam's opponents, tell us that the situation today is far worse than under the former regime. So, it is the U.S. and not us that have to answer to precise allegations. Furthermore, no country, under any pretext, would get involved in another war in the region."

Question: "Despite American allegations, you express the desire to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq. What would you answer if you were asked to send a military contingent?"

Al-Assad: "We must make a distinction between sending troops and participating in the reconstruction. And then differentiate between reconstruction and the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. Some talk about the reconstruction of Iraq as if it were a free zone for investment projects. The first role that Syria could have is to help re-establish Iraq's independence. But our involvement should be in response to the desires and will of the Iraqi people. If that was the case, we are ready. With any means."

Question: "Including the dispatch of a military contingent?"

Al-Assad: "Everything."

Question: "Would you... participate under U.S. command?"

Al-Assad: "It would mean that the Iraqi people accept the role of the U.S. Today, on the contrary, we see the refusal. It is obvious that we cannot participate under the American occupation, less so by sending soldiers. We would otherwise be considered, as the U.S., troops of occupation and therefore be rejected. Iraq needs a fixed date for the end of the occupation. Or else, the Iraqis say they will continue their resistance."

Question: "Moving on to the road map, did you ever believe in it?"

Al-Assad: "If the road map is not accepted by the people, by the powers that can bring peace to the region, it has no value… I ask myself why Palestinians and Israelis did not believe in it. I asked a European diplomat: What is the road map? A cease-fire or a peace process? He told me it is a peace process. No, I replied, it's little more than a cease-fire and a lot less than a peace process. The problem therefore is that the road map was presented as a container of an ultimate solution, but [as it did not] include the most important elements [i.e. the borders of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees], it was doomed to fail. Syria and Lebanon were mentioned, but no one asked for our opinion. At Sharm el Sheikh, some promoters of the road map were not present, such as Russia, the UN, and the EU. Abu Mazen was pushed to commit to everything, while Sharon has offered nothing. The Israeli government is a government of war and, as such, has no peace strategies. Even during truce, it went on with the targeted assassination campaign and the road map did not survive."

Question: "But did you try to facilitate the truce?"

Al-Assad: "Yes. The Palestinian groups were determined to keep it, but Israel went on killing. It was them that killed the truce, not the Palestinians. "

Question: "What would happen if Arafat, who you have never loved, was expelled or, worse, killed?"

Al-Assad: "We had many differences with Arafat, mainly regarding the peace process. All the problems take us back to the faults of Oslo. But now we try to defend Arafat, who was elected democratically, and I believe that the most serious mistake committed by the U.S. was to isolate him. If he was expelled, or worse, all the region would move towards the unknown and I cannot even imagine the consequences."

Question: "You have a new government. Are you satisfied? What did it do to better the still deficient human rights situation?"

Al-Assad: "I am never satisfied. Certain objectives were met, others not. As for human rights, the number one objective is to consolidate the rule of law. It is a long and difficult road and one of the reasons… we could not do more is linked to the region's problems, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the terrorism of which we had the sad experience. Now, in addition, there is the aftermath of the Iraqi war. It does not mean that we cannot do better. But speaking of human rights, just think of the U.S., which considers itself the biggest democracy in the world. There are conferences on human rights, and at the same time those of 26 million Iraqis are violated. They worry about certain individuals in Syria and they forget the rights of 500,000 Syrians in the occupied Golan. Double standards do not encourage democratic processes."

Question: "In your opinion, what point have we reached in the struggle against international terrorism?"

Al-Assad: "Any crime is terrorism, from bottom to top, up to state sponsored terrorism. But I can tell you that the campaign against terrorism has produced important results, both in Syria and in the countries that fight it. The only [problem] is that terrorism has made greater progress than our campaign against it, as it is an illusion to try and neutralize it with missiles. Terrorism is a mental state. If you do not have a rational mind, you cannot fight it. This is the problem. You could say that the campaign against terrorism, [beyond the intentions that we share], risks feeding it indirectly, by providing it with extra fuel. That's why we are all more exposed and vulnerable to other attacks."

[1] Il Corriere della Sera (Italy), September 28, 2003.

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