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memri
February 4, 2004 No.
657

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: 'Were There Not Forgiveness and Democracy in Syria, There Would be Harsher Measures Against the Opposition'

On January 19, 2004, the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a comprehensive interview with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The following are excerpts from the interview as published by the paper : [1]

On Syria-U.S. Dialogue

"We maintain a regular dialogue with American dignitaries who come to us, and with some congressmen, on many subjects, and we bring up our views with them. Naturally, dialogue is always successful, and we are open to any objective discussion and want to ensure our national interests.

"There are channels to convey messages [between Syria and the U.S.]; there is an official and an unofficial dialogue. Congressional delegations continue to come [to Damascus], and there are negative declarations and positive declarations. [But] to date, nothing is clear… It is the Israeli demands that are clear and perceptible, not the American demands.

"[The Americans] are demanding that we close the borders [with Iraq], 'sealing' the border like a mailing envelope. I ask them: Your border with Mexico is like the Syrian border with Iraq, and there too there are infiltrations and penetrations. The [Syria-Iraq] border is wide, and in the late 1970s the old Iraqi regime would send truck bombs [to Syria]. We tried then to stop them, but in many cases they got through and exploded in Syria. If this was the situation in the past, how is it possible to control the borders during this difficult period and prevent the infiltration of individuals when we found it impossible to stop [even] trucks in the past? It is inconceivable that we should be helping those who harm the security of our residents to infiltrate our borders and our cities.

"[The arrest of Syrians who infiltrated Iraq] is something we have only read or heard about. The Americans did not hand any such person over to us, nor have they transferred to us information on any detainee. Sometimes we arrest suspicious elements, but the report [of the arrest of six Syrians in connection with Al-Qa'ida] is untrue."

On Syrian Involvement in Arms Smuggling to Iraq

"Before the war in Iraq, when the accusations against Syria emerged, we told [the Americans]: 'Give us the names of people, so that we can investigate them.' After the war I met with top British and American officials and I told them: 'Give me the documents of the Iraqi deals that you have, if there are any,' but I did not receive a thing. We have no information to do anything [with]."

On Post-War Iraq

"Iraq has become a dangerous center, not necessarily because of the presence of the American forces. These forces can arrive by sea or by air, as a superpower [i.e. the U.S.] need not occupy Iraq in order to reach our border. Our real fear, and that of the region, is of the partitioning of Iraq."

On U.S. Criticism of Syria

"Colin Powell says that the Syrian president promised and did not deliver regarding the Iraqi oil pipeline, and he is referring to what happened when he visited us two years ago. We spoke of renewing the pumping of Iraqi oil through Syria, and [Powell] asked for the pumping to be carried out under U.N. supervision, in the framework of supervision of [Iraqi] exports. We answered in the affirmative, we asked for preferred tariffs, and [Powell] agreed and promised an answer, but he did not answer us as he had promised.

"When the Americans asked us to expel Palestinian elements (Islamic Jihad and Hamas), we answered in the negative, and clarified that they had broken none of our laws and done nothing to justify [expulsion], and that our agreement with them was that their offices served for information, and they were doing nothing in violation of this. Powell, known as a representative of the moderate line in the American administration, told me: 'I know that they are carrying out information activity.'

" Later, the offices were closed, at the initiative of the Palestinian organizations themselves, who did so after they saw the pressure on Syria, and this was their own initiative. After Powell left [Syria] he was attacked [in the American arena]: 'You went to Syria three times and you did nothing.' Powell did not tell them that he knew that the offices [of the Palestinian organizations] were only for information purposes."

On Possible U.S. Military Action Against Syria

"I hope it won't happen. There is disagreement and lack of clarity within the American administration. [The U.S. is] a superpower with no clear view regarding the region, and its pro-Israel bias influences it. Some Americans have denied that the U.S. used Israel in its aggressive act in Ein Al-Sahab. [2] It is hard to tell. Perhaps the Israelis exploited the difficult circumstances between us and the Americans in order to accomplish their goal."

On Israel's Peace Proposal

"The Europeans tell us: 'We don't think Sharon will achieve peace [with his proposal].' It doesn't matter to us who [is in power] in Israel, and we don't think that we will get back our occupied land via domestic change in Israel. Our goal is to achieve a clear peace according to the principles of the Madrid conference, and [according to] what was achieved in the past.

"Therefore we comply with all those who can lead to this result. Israel's declarations constitute attempts to overcome or express its domestic confusion. Our policy has not changed; it was and remains stable. Why should negotiations be conducted clandestinely? A state does not conduct negotiations in secret unless it wants to hide them from its people. The Syrian people supports peace, and if we wanted to conduct negotiations, why wouldn't we do so openly?"

On WMDs

"We call to disarm the region of weapons of mass destruction, and we proposed an initiative [on this matter] eight months ago… When you begin a step, it doesn't mean that you have reached the goal. Libya carried out one step, [but] the goal must be arrived at – which means disarming all the states in the region of WMDs.

" There is no logic in what [the U.S.] says. It is not logical to demand of the Arab and Islamic states – regarding which there is no proof at all of their possessing such weapons – to allow a search of their facilities, and to look the other way regarding the Israeli arsenal full of WMDs. If [the Americans] are serious, the entire region must be disarmed. The practical steps will be determined after the approval of an initiative to disarm the region of WMDs.

"[The Daily Telegraph's insinuation that Syria has WMDs] is far from the truth, and we in Syria did not bring this up at all." [3]

On Internal Criticism and Reform in Syria

"It is true that I began my term [as president] with a call for [internal] criticism. I admit that we have not achieved what we aspired to achieve. We need much time in order to do this, but that does not mean that we have not commenced political reform. When I raised the subject, it was in principle, and as an idea, but we will not agree to wear a garment that is not our size…

"Criticism is present in all [Syria's social] clubs, as in Syria there is an extensive dialogue going on that includes various forms of political criticism. The municipal and parliamentary elections raised ideas for correcting the mistakes, but there is no absolute following of these ideas or absolute rejection of these ideas.

"Were there not forgiveness and democracy [in Syria], there would be harsher measures against the opposition. When harsh criticism [of Syria] is written, even by you at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, do we call you up to protest? It is permissible to criticize, but you cannot respect anyone who does not respect his homeland.

"One of our problems is that we have no criteria for choosing the best people [for public positions]. There must be general criteria. We still are at the beginning of the road in human resource management, and we have not yet begun practical steps. The country cannot handle everything. The decision towards turning to expanding the private sector has already been made, and the arguments are over.

"The economic solution will not be at the expense of the social solution. The more the private sector expands, the more the burden of the state is reduced. The goal of privatization is to activate the private sector, but if the state lets the officials go without offering them [another] job, it will create problems, not solve them. There is no way out of offering them work before hastening to cut the public sector."

On Syria-Turkey Relations

"Iraq was one of the reasons [for President Al-Assad's visit to Turkey], since the difficult situation in Iraq constitutes a direct danger to Turkey, as it does to us. My visit to Turkey has an economic dimension and a political dimension, and we want a joint Syrian-Turkish role with regard to the problems of the region.

"We want the countries of the region to have united stances towards Iraq, and this can be obtained only by coordination and dialogue. We agree to everything upon which the Iraqis agree, because they are the ones involved and they know the reality better than anyone. In my meetings with [representatives] of the various Iraqi factions, they were opposed to anything likely to lead to the partition of Iraq. Establishing a federation on an ethnic or racial basis can, in my opinion, lead to such a result.

"There is coordination on positions [between Syria and Turkey] regarding the situation in Iraq. But such coordination exists also with the other countries in the region that are interested in advancing the region and its stability. With regard to Turkey-Israel relations, what is important is that [Turkey's] connection with Israel will not affect the relationship with Syria. I am reassured with regard to this, and the development of relations between us proves this."

On Syria's Isolation

"I do not see ourselves as isolated. Perhaps there is disagreement in world view with the other [Arab countries], but we have good relations with all the regional and world parties, and relations have even improved regarding countries with which there were perhaps problems in the past. We had disagreements with Kuwait, [but] I visited the Kuwaiti prime minister, and relations became good. Our relations with Turkey, which were in the past stormy, are today in the best possible shape, and also our relations with Russia, China, India, and Europe are good.

"Therefore, Syria is not isolated, but the world is paralyzed following the crisis and war in Iraq. The Arab world is in stagnation due to what attacked it. The Europeans are no longer interested in the subject of peace in the region; even the U.N. is paralyzed due to the war in Iraq…"

On Lebanon

"All the presidential candidates [in Lebanon] are friends with Syria, and [Syria] has no problem with the people. What are important are stances, such as resistance to occupation and a good relationship and coordination with Syria.

"Some Lebanese who resisted Syria thought we would not support Emil Lahoud when his name came up, and that we had preconditions regarding the candidates. It must be remembered that Lahoud was not among the supporters of Syria at that time, and he is the man who clung to his position and to his opinions. But we welcomed him and the good relationship remains for the sake of both countries. We don't take things personally."


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 19, 2004.

[2] A reference to the Israeli bombing of the Islamic Jihad training camp at Ein Al-Sahab near Damascus, on October 4, 2003.

[3] In an interview (Daily Telegraph, January 6, 2004), Al-Assad said that Syria was entitled to defend itself by acquiring chemical and biological weapons and that it would destroy its chemical and biological capability only if Israel agreed to get rid of its nuclear arsenal. "It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world," he told journalist Benedict Brogan. This veiled acknowledgement that Syria possesses weapons of mass destruction raised problems regarding Syria's signing of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements, as no signatory may possess such weapons. President Al-Assad's reference here corrects his statement to The Daily Telegraph.