June 23, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1966

Syrian President: Doha Accord - Victory for Syria and Lebanon; Economic Reform in Syria More Urgent than Political Reform; Syria Has an Opposition that Can Criticize the Government – It Is Just Not Legal Yet

June 23, 2008
Lebanon, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 1966

In a recent interview with the English-language Indian daily The Hindu, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad discussed a variety of foreign and domestic issues.

The following are excerpts from the interview:[1]

The War in Lebanon, and Its Impact on Israeli Society, Was Israel's Main Incentive to Move towards Peace

"[Interviewer] Varadarajan: Your government recently confirmed that there have been indirect talks between Syria and Israel through Turkey. Now, Israel is occupying the Golan Heights – which is Syrian territory – and obviously Syria is asking to get its territory back. But what can Syria give Israel in return?

"President Assad: First of all, as you said, Syrian land is occupied by Israel, so they have to give us back our land. We don't have something to give but we have something to achieve together, which is peace. It is not something we have. So if both sides achieve a certain treaty, including giving back the Golan Heights, this means achieving peace. The other thing besides the land is discussing normal relations, water, security arrangements, and all these details that are related to the concept of peace. As I said, it is something we achieve together, but Israel has the land and should give it back.

"Varadarajan: But it is said that Israel wants Syria to abandon its friends in the region – friends like Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. What is the Syrian response?

"President Assad: Nobody [has] asked us to do this. The Israelis have been talking about negotiations without preconditions. So they cannot ask for conditions for the negotiations, and they have not asked... Second, Hamas is related to the Palestinian track and we are talking about the Syrian track; we are not responsible for that track. Hizbullah is part of the Lebanese track and we are not in Lebanon today. So, we are only talking about the Syrian track. This is our position.

"Varadarajan: Jimmy Carter stated recently that 85% of the issues linked to the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights have been sorted out. What is left is the question of the last 15%? Is that an accurate assessment?

"President Assad: You mean during Rabin's government?

"Varadarajan: Yes, exactly.

"President Assad: Actually, we [have] achieved 80% of what we have to achieve before signing the treaty, but of course we do not have precise criteria; this is [only] our estimation. But that is true; we achieved a lot during Rabin's [era], but because of his assassination everything stopped. That's why we have been asking to start where we stopped during Rabin's [era, namely from the] security arrangements, which was the most difficult issue. Of course, we had Rabin's 'deposit,' which means giving back the Golan Heights up to the June 4, 1967 line, and we were about to talk about other issues such as [establishing] normal relations [with] embassies and the like, and we did not talk about water. This is what has been left [to discuss]. That is true.

"Varadarajan: What do you think [has] compelled Israel to talk peace with you at this time? It seems that the Americans themselves are not very happy with what Israel is doing. What do you think is motivating Israel to take this step right now?

"President Assad: The Israelis used to think that with time they [would grow] stronger, and [that] any opposition to their policies would grow weaker, but actually what happened was the opposite. Now the Israelis [have] learned that without peace they cannot live safely and Israel cannot be safe. I think this is true especially after the war on Lebanon, and because of the [impact] of that war on Israeli society. This is the main incentive for the Israelis to move toward peace. This is our analysis."

The Syrian Facility Bombed by Israel Was Not a Nuclear Plant; the Alleged Evidence is a Computer-Generated Forgery

"Varadarajan: ...It seems strange that you [should] be talking peace with Israel [only] a few months after it bombed your territory at al-Kibar, claiming [that the] target was a secret nuclear facility. Is this one of the issues you raised with them...?

"President Assad: No, we did not [raise this issue]. Of course, we have not met with them because it is an indirect negotiation. But the question is why did they announce [this only] seven months after the bombing? Why did they not announce it at that time, [and] send a delegation from the IAEA to see what is happening?

"Let's put it this way: they said [that] there was a facility and [that] they bombed this facility, and [that] now they have the evidence. Why did we not have this evidence seven months ago? Why do they have the evidence [only] today? Because after seven months, [it is possible] to say that Syria built the facility, and now it is demolished and they rebuild it in a different way; this is their excuse.

"[On the other hand,] if they had presented this alleged evidence at that time, their story wouldn't have proved to be genuine or credible.

"So, this is their ploy. We did not raise this issue. We said at the time that this proved to us that the Israelis were not serious about peace. That is why we talked about indirect, rather than direct, negotiations. [Our aim] is to probe the intentions of the Israeli side: Are they serious [about] giving back the Golan Heights to Syria, or is this just a tactic or maneuver for [the sake of] internal Israeli politics?... But we did raise [the issue] with the IAEA.

"Varadarajan: So what was the nature of that facility?

"President Assad: It is a military facility, and I [have] announced this. But [as for] the content of that facility – one does not usually [make] announcements [about] military content. But it is not nuclear; how could it be nuclear? Where is the radiation, where are the protective [shields] of this facility? How can you build such a facility under the [constant] watch of satellites?...

"Varadarajan: Why did the Israelis bomb it?

"President Assad: I think [they bombed it] because they did not know about it; they were suspicious of its content and they could not know. I cannot answer on their behalf; you should ask them. I think they had wrong information; [so after they bombed it] they were trapped. How could they explain to the Israeli [public] and to the rest of the world why they bombed it? This is where they created this story about a nuclear facility.

"In the beginning, they said that it was a site [from which] armaments were [transported] to Hizbullah, but how [could that be]? It is in the middle of Syria, and you have Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. How could you [transport] armaments to Hizbullah [from there]? From Turkey or from Iraq, where the Americans operate? This is not logical. Then they said that... the Turks used this site, but later, I think one month ago, they said it was nuclear.

"So it was clear that they did not have any evidence [proving] that it was a nuclear site; they created this evidence through manipulation on the computer, [causing it to look like] a copy of the North Korean plants.

"Varadarajan: So, this so-called photographic evidence and video evidence which indicated that this was a plutonium-producing plant made with North Korean help – all of this is fabricated?

"President Assad: Yes it was 100% fabricated. Of course, they talked about photos of Koreans in Syria, but we have normal relations with North Korea. We receive them formally and publicly... I [have] received North Korean officials, scientists and whatever. So this is not true.

"Varadarajan: One of the reasons why the world got a little bit suspicious about this issue is that the Syrians moved [so] quickly to clean up the site. What was the need for that? I mean... in September last year, [you could have] invited the international community to see the Israeli aggression, for example. Why did you keep quiet for so long, and why was this site cleaned up?

"President Assad: First of all, they did not say at the beginning it was a nuclear site... Second, it was attacked by missiles. You do not keep [such a site] it as it is, so we rebuilt it. We did that right away, a few days after the attack... It is normal to remove the debris...

"Varadarajan: So the facility was rebuilt, basically? What about the debris?

"President Assad: Maybe [it is] in a different or in the same site; it is a military issue and we do not usually announce what it is. May be it is [used in a] different building for another purpose.

"Varadarajan: I know you invited the IAEA to visit the site. Now the U.S. has said that that site is not enough and they should be allowed to visit other sites [as well]. Why do the Americans make that demand, and what is your response?

"President Assad: [There is] an agreement between Syria and the Agency [i.e. the IAEA], and every procedure implemented in Syria must be in accordance with this treaty. According to this treaty, you cannot just come and visit any place [based on] intelligence information... Because every day [someone might] come to the Agency and say 'we have this information.' It is a never-ending problem. So we usually come with certain evidence to see a suspicious place.

"Actually, [the Americans] did not come because it was a suspicious place; they did not bring any convincing evidence... but we said that [it was in our] interest to bring the Agency to [visit] to this site.

"[However, visiting] other sites is not within the purview of the agreement. So we have to be very precise – it is not a political but a technical issue. And we have a nuclear board, or commission, that has an agreement with them and they work within this agreement.

"Varadarajan: So, do you think that the U.S. is trying to create an atmosphere of suspicion against Syria?

"President Assad: Yes, because this is the [nature] of this administration. Everybody in the world still remembers what happened in Iraq, when they [claimed to have] all that evidence, but then it was proved that everything was fabricated. Even Colin Powell confessed in an interview that he did not tell the truth, and we all know this.

"Most of the countries know about the problem [that exists] between Syria and the U.S. They [are] always try to [set] traps for Syria. This is the reality.

"Varadarajan: One of the speculations is that [the Israelis carried out] this attack [in order to assess] their own preparedness for an attack on Iran. Have you heard this story?

"President Assad: Yes, but nobody can tell what was the real intention of that attack."

The Doha Accord – A Victory for Syria and Lebanon; Once a National Unity Government Is Established in Lebanon, Syria Will Be Able to Open an Embassy in Beirut

"Varadarajan: Your Excellency, turning to Lebanon – the Doha Accord has been [characterized] as a major victory not just for various Lebanese political players, but also for Syria's policy. Do you think the Doha Accord, and the new coalition agreement, will mark the opening of a new chapter in Syrian-Lebanese relations?

"President Assad: Definitely... [Firstly], this is a victory for the Lebanese. This is because Syria protected itself; when you have chaos, conflict, civil war and the like in Lebanon we are affected directly, this is the first victory.

"The second victory [has to do with the fact] that many Lebanese, and many officials around the world, used to accuse Syria of creating problems in Lebanon. [They said that] we have an interest in creating these problems and [in instigating] conflicts in Lebanon. But the Doha Accord, which was supported directly by Syria, was stark proof that Syria is working in the other direction, [contrary to] what they used to say. This was very important for Syria. [Moreover,] the proposals we made a few months ago, before solving the problem, were the same proposals the Doha Accord depended upon. So we proved to have the vision for a safe Lebanon.

"Varadarajan: Do you think that, if things move fast, you will make a visit to Beirut?

"President Assad: Yes, and about the other aspect I mentioned... We can see now that many Lebanese [have] noted that Syria is working for the sake of Lebanon; [and that] Syria and Lebanon have common interests. So the relations should [now] move in the right direction and improve in the future. But as for a presidential visit – this [depends on] the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon. Second, [it also requires an arrangement] between myself and the Lebanese president; we have not discussed my visit.

"But when I spoke to him after the [signing of the] Doha Accord, I told him that we are ready to help Lebanon and to help him personally in his mission. He said [that the Lebanese] wanted the help of the Syrians in the future, and we said we were ready; we are still waiting.

"Varadarajan: And will this lead to the opening of an embassy in Beirut?

"President Assad: Yes. We mentioned this three years ago, and said that we do not have any problem. But the problem is that if you have bad relations with a country, you usually withdraw your ambassador and close the embassy. So how do you open an embassy [in] a country when your relations with its government are bad relations, not good ones? Now when they [establish] this national unity government, it will be normal for Syria to open an embassy in Lebanon."

Syria Maintains Ties with Hamas and Hizbullah because They Are Important Players in the Region

"Varadarajan: I have been struck by the paradox in Syria's policy: Internally, Syrian society is very secular. You oppose sectarian politics and you do not allow that kind of politics in your country. But most of your best friends in the region are sectarian [in nature], like Hamas, Hizbullah and even the Iranians. Is this a problem for Syria?

"President Assad: In politics you have to be pragmatic. The first question that you ask is who is effective in our region. You do not ask who is like you and who is not. Hamas is effective and important in Palestine. Hizbullah is a very important party in Lebanon, and Iran is a very important country in the region. Without these players you cannot have stability, you cannot have any solution, and you cannot [achieve] anything...

"So, whether you like it or not, whether you agree with [them] or not, you have to deal with them. You do not say like the [U.S.] administration 'black and white,' 'evil and good,' and things like that – it doesn't work this way in politics. If you want to solve problems, you have to deal with the players."

"Varadarajan: The Iranians were not very happy when Syria took part in the Annapolis conference, and I imagine they are not happy about the indirect talks with Israel. Have you had any feedback from Tehran?

"President Assad: We were not very happy with Annapolis conference either! We knew that [the present U.S. administration] is not a serious administration. We knew in advance... that they were not serious about peace... They said: 'we are not interested in the Syrian track.' [They repeated this] recently, even after Annapolis. So we knew that these events were [just] window dressing, to give the American [public an impression that the U.S. was] working for peace.

"For us, it was important to bring up the issue of the Golan [on this] international podium, because most of the world was at the Annapolis [summit]. That's why we had to [attend] – in order to put the Golan on the table, but at the same time we were not happy. And now, six or seven months later, nothing has happened on any track.

"Again, this is a Syrian issue and Iran does not interfere in Syrian issues; they support the Syrian cause [regardless of] whether we are happy or they are happy, and that's why the relations between Syria and Iran are so strong. In the 1980s, most of the world – including the U.S. – was supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran, and we were one of very few countries in the world that said that Iran was right [while] Saddam was wrong. Now, the rest of the world [realizes that] we were right back then. Iran never forgets that we supported them at a time when the rest of the world was against them. That is why the relations between Syria and Iran are so strong."

A National Unity Government in Lebanon Will Guarantee that the International Tribunal Works Professionally and in a Non-Politicized Manner

"Varadarajan: Turning to the [issue of the] U.N. tribunal being set up in The Hague to deal with the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister] Rafiq Al-Hariri, do you have confidence that it will work objectively?

"President Assad: If it is not politicized, we will say [that] it is trustworthy and should... [uncover] the criminals. But as in any other investigation, you must have forensic evidence... and that is why they [have] said that they will extend the mission of the delegation in Lebanon. This means that things are moving in the right direction so far. We hope [that] this tribunal will be a very professional tribunal, not a politicized one.

"Varadarajan: But based on the Mehlis report, do you fear [that] there is an attempt to frame Syria?

"President Assad: I think that the reports which came after Mehlis have completely refuted what Mehlis said. That is why we feel [confident that] everything is going in a professional manner.

"Varadarajan: So the Syrian authorities will cooperate fully once the tribunal gets underway?

"President Assad: Definitely. [The tribunal has] mentioned many times in [its] reports that the Syrian cooperation was satisfactory.

"Varadarajan: What will happen if the tribunal [subpoenas] Syrian citizens [to appear before the court]?

"President Assad: Usually there should be an agreement, like they had in Lebanon when they formed the tribunal; there was an agreement between the Lebanese government and the United Nations. Now they must have another agreement with Syria, because we have our [own] jury and our [own] sovereignty and judicial system, which we will not replace with another [under any circumstances]. So there must be an agreement between Syria and the United Nations regarding this cooperation.

"Varadarajan: Do you think after the Doha [agreement], the Lebanese government will be in a stronger position to influence the tribunal and make sure that it goes in the right direction?

"President Assad: Of course, if you have a [national] unity government in Lebanon, the tribunal should work professionally and in a non-politicized manner. This is an important guarantee. It means that you have a consensus in Lebanon about certain issues, and if you have this consensus, it means that the tribunal cannot be politicized. You are right, this is about the government not about the opposition..."

Economic Impact of U.S. Sanctions Negligible, Since Syria Has Little Trade with U.S.

"Varadarajan: What is the impact of the Syria Accountability Act, the sanctions against Syria? Has it hurt you in anyway?"

"President Assad: No, because we don't have [significant] bilateral relations with the United States in any case. Most of our relations used to be with Europe, and now [they are] with Asia. A few years ago we took a strategic [decision] to move towards Asia and even [towards] South America... but not [towards] the United States. We have [only] a few hundred thousand dollars in trade balance. The effect [of the sanctions] is more political than economic.

"Varadarajan: Turning to the U.S. presidential elections, how do you think the outcome will affect the prospects of peace in Iraq, and the withdrawal of the American occupation forces [from that country]?

"President Assad: In Syria we don't usually bet on who will be the president of the United States, especially during an [election] campaign. You don't listen to what they say during the campaign. We usually [rely] on the policies, not on the speeches. But of course what these candidates have in common is the failure of the previous government or administration. This is very important. As long as they [recognize] the failure, they will not adopt the same doctrine or policy. This is very important for us.

"Now, how to find a solution [to the problems in Iraq]? You cannot find a solution in the U.S. You have to [reach] it in the region. If you want to [reach a solution] in the region, you have to recognize the main players: first of all the Iraqis, and second, the neighboring countries. They can help. You have to make discussions, to conduct dialogue.

"The problem with [the present U.S.] administration is that they do not [conduct] dialogue even with their allies in Europe and in the region, including the British, who supported them in their war. What we have heard from the Democrats – Obama and Hillary Clinton – regarding the Iraqi issue was positive: that you must have dialogue and a political process leading to withdrawal at the end. [On the other hand,] what we heard from McCain – that he is going to stay in Iraq for a hundred years – I do not think that is what you may usually hear from a politician, from any politician. Anyway, we have to wait until someone is in office."

U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq Must Be Accompanied by Inter-Iraqi Process of Dialogue, Establishment of Legitimate Institutions

"Varadarajan: But do you think [that] a clean and quick withdrawal is feasible from a military point of view? Could it have adverse effects?

"President Assad: This is not the issue, this is the wrong issue. I [heard] it in the American media. [The question] is not whether to leave or not. Now, after five years, they have made the situation much worse, and it is getting worse every day. [Even] if they withdraw right now, it is bad anyway. So [it is not about] whether they leave or not. It's about the political process.

"First of all, they must say [that] they are going to leave, [and they must say] when and how... They have to specify a schedule, a certain timetable, and at the same time you must have the political process. In that political process, you should first have dialogue, second a constitution, third legitimate institutions, and in parallel [to all that] – the withdrawal. This is the political process.

"So it is not about the concept or the principle of withdrawing or staying in Iraq. You have to withdraw, but [the question is] how and when? If you do it the right way, if you answer [the question of] how and when, you can leave Iraq in a better state, not worse. Now they say: 'if we leave, it is going to be worse.' Of course, if you leave it like this it is going to be worse."

An Attack on Iran Would Be a Great Mistake; The West Condemns Ahmadinejad for Saying that Israel Will Disappear – So Why Do They Have the Right to Threaten Iran?

"Varadarajan: Were you surprised by the statements that Mr. Barack Obama made at the AIPAC meeting the other day?

"President Assad: No. Again, this is a campaign. In a campaign, you usually talk to your audience. AIPAC supports Israel, so it is normal for any candidate in the U.S. to use this language [when talking] to them. So no, I wasn't surprised.

"Varadarajan: Israeli [Deputy Prime Minister] Mofaz recently raised the issue of the need to take military action against Iran. Is this something you are afraid of? Or do you dismiss this possibility?

"President Assad: This is the biggest mistake anyone could make in Iran, either Israel or the U.S. I think that the repercussions of this mistake would be huge and would last for decades. On the other hand, they get angry when Ahmadinejad says that Israel will disappear. So why do they have the right to say [that] they will attack Iran?

"Varadarajan: And make Iran disappear.

"President Assad: Disappear or not, they are using the same language. Iran has said many times that its nuclear [program] is peaceful. So as long as they obey international law, why be against them? They said that it is peaceful, and mentioned many times that they [intend] to cooperate with the IAEA, but the problem with some Europeans and with the American administration is that they don't want [the Iranians] to have what they have right to possess: [namely nuclear] fuel. There is no international law that says you cannot have [nuclear] fuel. This is the problem; and it is a national issue in Iran. So what Mofaz said will make the situation worse for Israel, before the rest of the world and the region. That is how we see it."

Economic Reform in Syria – More Urgent than Political Reform

"Varadarajan: Your Excellency, turning to domestic issues... Are you thinking, let's say within four to five years, of widening the scope of domestic political activities? I read a statement by you [in which you said] that there should be a greater role for the so-called patriotic opposition. What is your vision of the political developments inside Syria in the next five years?"

"President Assad: When I said, upon becoming president, that we will have reform in Syria, I meant every aspect of reform. You can say the main axes are the political, economic and social – [that is,] upgrading society in general. Usually one moves faster in the most urgent axis and where you can achieve the most, [that is,] where you can move forward fastest.

"The most urgent [issue] in Syria is the economic [one], because we have poverty; the second [level] is the political [one]. When you talk about the opposition in the process of political reform, that depends on the laws. What laws you are going to have, and the circumstances in which you are living today. [This must be taken into consideration] in order to produce the good result that you expect from a good law – not like what happened in Algeria in 1988, when they had good laws but not good circumstances. They are paying the price to this very day. Not like what happened in Lebanon. They have full democracy, but they have been moving from one civil war to another, from one conflict to another for more that 200 years. This is not our goal."

Tensions in Region, U.S. Pressures Prevent Syria from Implementing Reforms

"President Assad: [Let's see] what happened in the last seven years: I became president in August 2000. Two months later the Intifada started, the conflict in Palestine started and it has not yet stopped. It is getting worse every day. The problem in Lebanon started in 2004. You had 9/11 one year after [I became president], and the war in Iraq, which is the worst, started in 2003.

"All these circumstances [have] affected Syria directly. Usually in such circumstances you have tension, you have more closed-minded people, you have more extremism. For example, we started seeing terrorist attacks in Syria in 2004. We hadn't seen them in Syria since the early 1980s – especially Al-Qaeda, which has the same roots as the Muslim Brotherhood that was in Syria in the 1980s.

"So society as a whole is affected. This means the whole political process is affected. We used to think that many things would be implemented in 2005. We haven't been able to [implement them] so far. And we have all this American pressure. This doesn't mean that we will stop [the reforms]. We launched the first private satellite TV station last year, the first political magazine three years ago, and now we have many private magazines in different fields. We have more freedom in Syria than [we had] before. We are moving slowly and cautiously. We have to be very frank and very clear about this. We don't move fast, and we cannot move fast.

"The next step is going to be to expand the participation of different [political streams] in Syria by having an upper house of parliament, and we are discussing [the question of] what kind of house will [allow] more participation. Second, [there is] the local administration law: [aimed at] having freer and more dynamic elections throughout Syria. Third – and that is what we discussed in 2005 and didn't discuss before – a modern new party law. This is the most important aspect of the political reform. Actually, we meant to do that in 2006, but the problem was that most of the difficulties started in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri and the embargo imposed on Syria by most of the countries in the region and in Europe, as well as by the U.S.. This is why we had different priorities. Now we have started to talk about it again. It will not be implemented in 2008 because we expect this year to be dangerous. We are going to wait and see what happens with the [U.S.] administration – then we can discuss it."

Syria Has an Opposition That Can Criticize the Government – It Is Just Not Legal Yet

"President Assad: We are moving forward, and we do not talk about the 'patriotic' or 'unpatriotic' opposition. Many people want to participate [in the political arena], whether they are in the opposition or otherwise. I am talking about reform in general.

"The opposition is not legal [in Syria] because we don't have [the necessary] laws, but it exists in Syria wherever you go. You can sit with them, you can criticize the government and the state in general, the officials. So we are dealing positively with the opposition, [it's just that] it does not exist as a legal entity yet, because we need the laws for the opposition to be legitimized by law – but it is there and we deal with it as a reality.

"Varadarajan: You mentioned Algeria. Do you fear that opening up the political [arena] too fast may lead to the emergence of Islamist or sectarian parties?

"President Assad: Sectarian, yes. You come from India. You have the same [sort of] mosaic, but you have a successful democracy. For various reasons, Algeria did not have a successful democracy. Maybe because the fundaments of your society are different.

"In our society, we have the Islamic pillar and the pan-Arab pillar. We have many different streams, but none of them can lead: only these two will lead. If you don't have good relations between pan-Arabism and Islam, you have problems.

"That's what happened in the early 1960s. We had this division between the Islamic and the pan-Arab. [The Islamists] saw [pan-Arabism] as very secular; and in the past they used to think that 'secular' meant 'atheist' – against God, and this one supports God. So, they were in conflict. That is why it wasn't easy for us to have real democracy. This is one of the reasons of course. You need to have good relations in order to have democracy. This is one of the main issues. Many in the west don't understand the relationship between the Islamic and the pan-Arab pillars.

"Varadarajan: Within Syria, the role of Islamic social charity organizations like Qubaysis and the like is expanding. Could these eventually emerge as political trends? Do you consider this as a possibility?

"President Assad: No, no sectarian stream is allowed to become politicized. This is [necessary] for the security of our region and of our country. We cannot allow that.

"Varadarajan: And this law will never change?

"President Assad: No, they have the right to conduct any kind of activity related to Islamic teachings, but not political [activity]. Politics in Syria has its rules and laws..."

[1] The Hindu (India), June 12, 2008, The text has been edited for clarity.

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