Assad Interview: Syrian Pressing for Israel Talks
Date: 02-12-03 12:21
New York Times
Interview With Syria's President
DAMASCUS, Syria, Nov. 30 - Following are the complete remarks by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from an interview with The New York Times on Sunday. The president's office transcribed and translated the interview, during which the president spoke in Arabic and English. The Times trimmed some text from the questions.
Question: May be we can begin with the subject of Syrian-Israeli relations because it has been so long since we have seen any hint of motion in that area; I wonder whether you would like to see the Bush administration take the initiative to try to revive those negotiations.
Answer: We don't only desire and wish but we always call, in every meeting and every speech we call on the United States to work hard for the resumption of these negotiations. We also call upon all international parties who are able to contribute to resuming the negotiations to try their best to do so, but I think the role of the United States remains of prime importance in this.
We call upon the United States to first have a clear vision for the peace process, second to have the proper means for this process, and third to launch the negotiations. As far as we are concerned in Syria, we are always ready to resume peace negotiations on the basis of Madrid terms of reference.
Question: Have you had any indications from the Bush administration that they are trying to?
Answer: We spoke with quite few senior American officials about the very point you are raising. Arab and European leaders also raised this issue with American officials. The American response was that "Yes, we agree in principle and this should happen but not now." They said they are now interested in the Palestinian track. All those who are truly interested in the peace process know that peace cannot be achieved unless it is comprehensive.
To be clear on that point, we don't see any indication that the United States is ready to launch or resume the peace process on the Syrian track in the near future.
Question: Where would you start the negotiations? Given the previous discussions about where the border would go, would you begin again from that point?
Answer: Some people mention what you have just mentioned as if Syria doesn't accept anything except this as a starting point. Some people say there are Syrian conditions, and my answer is no, we don't have Syrian conditions. What Syria says is this: Negotiations should be resumed from the point at which they had stopped simply because we have achieved a great deal in these negotiations. If we don't say this, it means we want to go back to point zero in the peace process. This would also mean wasting a lot more time, and every day we waste more people are being killed and more violence erupts in the region.
Apart from that, when we say that we have agreed on80 % of the points of the peace process -the details of the points agreed upon are of course with the American administration; I mean if we go back to point zero, we might even not agree on the points on which we had agreed in the past not because we have changed our position in Syria but because changes have taken place in Israel. That's why we say we would like to resume negotiations from the point at which they had stopped in order to reach the best results in the shortest possible time.
Question: There have been rumors from time to time that Syria has been sending envoys; there was a story that your brother went to Jordan to meet an Israeli official just to explore the possibility of resuming negotiations. Is there any truth to any of these rumors?
Answer: My brother is not involved in politics, and he never traveled to Jordan.
Question: But the larger question is whether there have been any exploratory meetings between Syria and Israel about resuming negotiations?
Answer: No. We look for indications through mediators. Those mediators are friends of Syria, Arabs and foreigners. But we look for these indications from the United States and not from Israel, because as I have said we in Syria believe that if the United States doesn't have the vision and the will to make peace in the Middle East, everything else will lose its value and there is going to be no peace.
Add to this the fact that there are very clear signals from Israel against peace at this moment of time. I'm speaking in particular about the period since Sharon assumed office in Israel.
Question: Do you see the beginning of a vision on the part of the Bush administration?
Answer: Let's take two sides of this vision. We agree with what you said regarding a two-state solution and getting rid of settlements; these are correct principles. These are the beginnings but they remain as principles. This has to be complemented by putting mechanisms to achieve that; you cannot just keep talking about this vision, you have to put a mechanism in order to achieve that vision.
Any country in the world, including those who have no influence in the region, can speak about a general vision but not the United States. The United States has the means and tools to implement a vision, it's an influential country.
Question: When you say mechanism, do you mean using their influence with Israel?
Answer: I mean with all the parties, but not to be biased towards one side against another. It should be an honest broker with all parties. Let me give another example: the Madrid terms of reference were based on Security Council resolutions. Those who implement these resolutions and the Madrid terms of reference are those who want peace and vice versa.
I want talk about the past, but let's assume we're going now to start negotiations. How do we treat those who stand against peace? I'm not putting a proposal now, but if we don't put measures and mechanisms then any side can obstruct the peace process without facing any consequence. Perhaps the United States could put such kind of measures or perhaps the United Nations' Security Council members could do that. There are many ways.
Question: If you could resolve the problem of the Palestinians and the problem of the Golan, is Syria still ready for formal normalization of relations with Israel as was expressed by the Arab League at the Beirut summit?
Answer: This is one of the points in which we achieved huge progress in the peace negotiations in the early1990 s. Imagine that you're negotiating with another party about the borders, water, security arrangements and relations in their general sense, this means that you have gone a huge part of the way imagining countries in the region living in peace.
Question: Do you feel that your relations with Hezbollah, your backing for Hezbollah, has become a liability at a time when the United States, after9 /11, terrorism as its framework for judging its relations?
Answer: Let me explain first how we see this point. Syria does not support a party or a state or a government in general. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and then, more widely, in1982 , we said we support Lebanese resistance to liberate their country from occupation. There was neither a party called Hezbollah nor any other party at that time; there were groups of people who were resisting occupation. We were supporting resistance that aimed to liberate Lebanese territories. We didn't support at any point a party that is carrying out operations outside the Lebanese territories for different purposes, and this is what Lebanese resistance always states, and Hezbollah in particular, that they only fight occupation on their own territories.
Question: But Sheba' farms are outside Lebanon, right?
Answer: It's a small part inside Lebanon. They say it's Syrian and we say `No, it's Lebanese and not Syrian.' It's a very small area. All the operations of Hezbollah now take place on Lebanese territories not outside, while the Israeli airplanes violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis. There is no exchange of shelling between the Lebanese and the Israelis although Israel, unlike the Lebanese, every now and then shells Lebanese territories.
There is a misunderstanding of Syrian relations with Hezbollah in the United States. Not only regarding this point, but there is a misunderstanding regarding Syrian politics that led to probably not good relations between Syria and the US.
Question: But the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, in addition to other organizations you have given support for. As long as that continues, it's going to be difficult to have any kind of normal relations with the U.S. So how are you going to face that issue?
Answer: Simply speaking, we don't support Hezbollah; we support it politically. We don't give it money or armament, and this is our general policy with any party in this region. So, we support politically the liberation of the Lebanese land, while what they say is that we are giving them weapons and bombs and so on. That's what I mean by misunderstanding the Syrian position.
We cannot build on things that are incorrect, and we try to explain our position towards these points to the Americans; some of them understand this and some do not, especially when we focus in our talk on the Syrian-American bilateral relations and the mutual interests the United States has with Syria in the region.
The problem is that the United States always puts things related to Israel in the way of our bilateral relations. This is one of the points that make the Syrian-American relations fluctuate up and down.
Question: Syria has been very outspoken in its opposition to what the United States has done in Iraq, and you yourself stated in March that you hoped they would fail. There has also been a series of statements coming from here supporting attacks on the Americans and supporting an immediate withdrawal and so forth. Yet, if you talk to Iraqis themselves, they're fearful that if the Americans left there would be chaos and much more violence. So, what do you think the consequences of an American withdrawal or any kind of failure in Iraq would be, both for the Arab region at large and for Syria specifically?
Answer: The first point I'd like to stress is that all what I said to Americans, whether the American officials or through our statements before and during the war, turned out now to be true.
In fact things are even going worse than Syria expected. You're speaking about chaos in Iraq, and so we have to see what is the reason for this chaos in Iraq. The chaotic situation in Iraq is bad for Iraq, bad for the region and perhaps bad for countries outside the region.
We meet with Iraqis from different strata but didn't hear any contradictory vision from them. I think they agree on the general points and principles. Some people raise the very point you have raised as if there is a civil war in Iraq. There is no civil war, but rather American and British allied forces that occupy Iraq. The US is present in certain areas and not present in other areas in Iraq. In many areas where neither the US nor any Iraqi authorities are there, things are organized among Iraqis themselves.
Let's speak in a broader basis. Whether there is going to be chaos or not depends on how the US will address the demands and needs of the Iraqi people. Let me be clear. What is the thing that stands in the way of chaos in any country? It is the institutions and the government. If there is going to be a constitution drawn by the Iraqis and a government elected by the Iraqis, why there should be any chaos then? So, the way is clear: a constitution drafted by the Iraqis and an elected government, while if there is a constitution imposed on the Iraqis and a government imposed on them, then there is going to be chaos. But at any rate there is chaos in Iraq now.
So, what we fear is already there, and now there is an escalating trend of terrorism that neither our neighbors nor we are able to control. There is also an armament smuggling among countries. There is also no side in Iraq with whom you can agree on any procedures or measures. Therefore, I think the solution in Iraq is to allow the Iraqis to write their own constitution and to elect their own government.
Question: Who do you think is waging the resistance against the Americans?
Answer: I'm not going to speculate, I'm going to tell you what we heard from Iraqis; we haven't presence in Iraq and we haven't had a strong relationship with Iraq because of the conflict between Syria and Iraq for decades.
Our relation with Iraq is a new one. What we heard from them very clearly is that this is Iraqi resistance. That's what they said. Some people in the world say this Iraqi resistance is the remnants of Saddam's regime; they accuse the resistance of being related to Saddam. Actually -they say- we, as Iraqis, are against Saddam Hussein; most of us, Sunni, Shiite and Kurds are against Saddam and against this occupation. That's what they say, and we heard that from them clearly.
Of course, some Americans said they are remnants of Saddam's regime, terrorists, members of Al-Qaeda, maybe, but we differ with those who say that all the resistance is coming from outside Iraq. Maybe you have1 , 000or2 , 000people from outside Iraq, but what about the 25 million Iraqis?
Question: Going back to that issue, in talking to different officials around the region, it seems they face a certain dilemma because they really oppose what the United States did in Iraq; they are against the invasion, they're against the occupation, but at the same time they kind of fear the consequences of failure; they don't really want the US to succeed because they didn't like it from the beginning and they don't like the ideas the U.S. is pushing, but they don't want it to fail either because the consequences of anarchy there are so difficult. So, how do you see that situation? How do you choose between these two?
Answer: I would agree that the two situations are difficult as some people fear. It's like entering a long tunnel, there is no light at the end, and it's growing narrower and narrower, at the end you're going to be stuck. You cannot go forward and you cannot go backward; that's how I understand the situation I'm talking about. So, the only solution is to break this tunnel by putting an Iraqi constitution and electing a government. There is no other way as we see it in Syria.
Question: The Bush administration, or at least the U.S. army, is planning for a significant presence in Iraq at least until2006 . Does it make you uncomfortable to have a100 , 000U.S. soldiers as your neighbors?
Answer: The United States is not an adversary or enemy of Syria. The normal course of affairs for such strong countries like the U.S., who is a super power in military, economic and technological fields, is to be a helpful factor to us. So the problem is not whether you have one American soldier or a million American soldiers on your borders. And the problem is not whether they are going to stay one year or ten years. The problem is whether the US is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region instead of being an element of stability. I'm not talking about Iraq now, but rather I'm talking in general. Iraq of course is our neighbor and we're going to be affected more than any other country in the world by this chaos.
The issue here is whether the United States has a vision to solve problems in Iraq, in the region, in the Middle East or whether the U.S. doesn't have the vision. The most important point regarding your question is what the Iraqi people are asking for. They want the American forces to completely withdraw from Iraq. If the United States intends to withdraw completely from Iraq, then I think the Iraqi people, we and everybody else agree to the principle that there's going to be a full withdrawal from Iraq. As for the period to achieve that, it's something that the Iraqis themselves have to assess, but not people outside Iraq.
Question: You're talking about an American vision, and I know there is a stated American vision that they would like to create a democratic, freer Iraq, a country that will serve as a model for other countries in the region. In talking to people in the streets in the Arab world, even people who hate the idea that the American army is here and hate the idea of occupation, they still support that vision. What's your reaction to that sort of popular appeal of what the Americans are doing?
Answer: I was talking about the same concept when I said `a constitution drafted by Iraqis and an elected government.' So, this is the beginning of democracy. How do you start democracy? By the constitution; this is a concept on which everybody in this country agrees with us about. That's democracy, while what you're talking about is democracy by force, and this is different. You cannot impose democracy, but rather let people choose the way of life they like. This is the beginning of democracy. Whereas if somebody says I'm going to impose democracy on this or that country, then this is against democracy.
Question: The point I was trying to make is that citizens in other countries are hoping that somehow what happens in Iraq will affect their own lives. Syrians, for example, want more freedom. Do you think if the U.S. does what it says, is it going to put pressure on you to be more open and to reform here?
Answer: Let me give you the opinion of the Syrian opposition that exists anywhere, whether inside Syria or outside it. They do not support the Syrian regime, constitution, or government, but they are against what the Americans are saying about bringing democracy to Iraq. I mean they are against exporting democracy by force or by any other means. This is their opinion; it is very clear and you can find it on TV, newspapers, etc. You can ask them.
Question: Yes, I agree, they say they don't want what happened in Iraq to happen here by any means. But they still hope that Iraq becomes a model to push other governments in the area to allow their citizens more freedom.
Answer: I hope we can make better steps towards democracy in our country, but that takes time. But no one in Syria, or maybe in the region if I want to exaggerate a little bit, asks for help from any country to have his own democracy. I think before the war on Iraq some thought about this, but after the war they changed their minds. Only a little percentage of people used to think before the war that the war on Iraq would help democracy in the region. Most of them now think this is a bad example of bringing democracy.
Question: Who do you see now as a legitimate authority in Iraq? Is it the Iraqi Governing Council or what?
Answer: I'd like to be accurate regarding this point. We are another country, and we can acknowledge a state in Iraq. We don't recognize a government or a constitution. Therefore, we are waiting for a state in Iraq to recognize. There is no state in Iraq now, and that's why we cannot recognize a group or a government now; we say when they have a full state, a parliament, institutions, we can recognize.
As for now, we are dealing with the Governing Council members because many of them are friends of Syria.
Question: As for the Governing Council and the interim government, there is a rough timetable for writing the constitution and holding the elections. They're still arguing over the timing but there is a process that seems to have begun. Do you see that as something that could lead to a legitimate Iraqi government, or is this just a kind of a facade created by the Americans?
Answer: I think this is the point of difference between the Iraqis and the Americans. What we hear from the Iraqis is that they want elections at the level of people, while the American point of view is that the interim government should draw the constitution; whether it's an interim or permanent constitution I don't know, but this is what the Americans are calling for. And I think that if this is done, it's going to be one of the reasons for chaos in the future in Iraq. That's why we believe that those who are going to draft the constitution should be elected by the Iraqi people, and this is an Iraqi proposal and not a Syrian one.
Question: How would you feel about a government with Mr. Chalabi as its head running Iraq?
Answer: I don't know him. I've never met him. We are not the ones to decide who is the best person in this interim government; we know quite a number of them and we deal with them as a defacto, there as a result of the occupation of Iraq. We trust those whom we have known for a long time and they trust us, and there are persons whom we don't know and therefore we cannot judge them or give any positive or negative impression about them.
Question: Can you imagine any circumstances under which Syria would play a peace keeping role or be part of the peacekeeping efforts in Iraq?
Answer: We were asked this question by some European officials, and other countries were also asked this question. The difference between Syria and other countries who were asked this question is that Syria is a neighboring country to Iraq and it is an Arab country, and along the Syrian-Iraqi borders there are interrelated kinships between Iraqi and Syrian families. In the meantime there was a huge problem between Syria and Iraq for decades. So, any role Syria would like to play towards Iraq should be based on this long time of differences we had in Iraq with the objective of achieving good Syrian-Iraqi relations in the future.
That is why we said that we don't have any objection at all to playing a role with the Iraqis or in Iraq, only with the condition that there should be an Iraqi approval of the role we would like to play or even a request by the Iraqis to us to play that role. We asked the Iraqis who visited us about this point. They said to us categorically and absolutely clearly that we do not want any military role for any country in the world, and any forces that will enter into Iraq whether they are foreign or Arab forces will be treated as the enemy. We could see the events in front of us, we see what is happening; yesterday seven Spanish officers were killed in Iraq, and before that the Italians, although they are friendly countries to Iraq.
Question: There are a lot of tribes that go across the borders; the Shummar tribe and some of the big tribes confederations across the broader; there are Shummar in Iraq and Shummar here and some of the delegations you have met have been from tribes. Does that give Syria any measure of influence about what is happening inside Iraq at the moment?
Answer: At this moment, I do not see that Syria has any influence inside Iraq, because our purpose from this relation is not to influence the inner situation in Iraq unless they ask for our help. But we aim from this relation and contacts now to have good future relation with the Iraqis. It is very difficult to assess the situation in Iraq now because it is changing on a daily basis, especially politically. So, to speak about influence, you could influence something today but you lose it tomorrow, it is a changing situation. But what I can tell you is that Syria has credibility in Iraq, and sometimes, perhaps in the future, this credibility might have a political influence or role, we don't know. Now there is no political life in Iraq, all what we can see is chaos. Even if we want to have an influence in Iraq, what are we going to influence in Iraq now?!
Question: Do you think that the situation in Iraq now is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein?
Answer: Also I'm not going to give you my personal opinion, but I will tell you what the Iraqis told me. The Iraqis tell us that the majority of the Iraqis were against Saddam Hussein, but they believe he is more popular than he was before the war. Also this is one of the points that I used to warn the Americans against. I said to the Americans that wars do not solve problems and do not achieve objectives; on the contrary they backfire and they probably take you to a contradictory position to where you want to be. The question that the Iraqis frankly ask today is how many persons Saddam used to kill on a daily basis and how many persons do the Americans kill nowadays? The Iraqis certainly believe now that the situation has become much worse. Also when Saddam Hussein was there, that is what they say, there was at least electricity, water and basic services. The museum was not looted under Saddam. I believe that this is the biggest calamity that has befallen Iraq in history, that is what they tell us; those whom we met told us that.
Question: The United States has, I believe, pushed or asked Syria to attempt to control the border in a better way. I understand that you have compared that border to our border with Mexico; it is a long border and probably impossible to completely control, but have made some specific efforts to limit movements from Syria into Iraq?
Answer: I'm not going to compare with your border, but I'm going to compare with our border with Iraq in the80 s. In the80 s, Saddam used to send big tracks full of explosives to kill hundreds and thousands in Syria; more than15 , 000people over four years, and we were not able to block these borders. So, the first time the Americans asked us to control these borders, we told them we cannot do that. We have border guards, but if he was able to smuggle trucks, how can we control individuals, this is impossible. You have the army on the Iraqi side of the border, you can control that. Of course we have taken some steps to block the border completely, but before the war, not after.
So, we still have the same procedures. Now, we have more smuggling, but towards Syria not Iraq, armaments are coming from Iraq to Syria. I mean if we make the comparison, we make the comparison with our borders and ourselves. So, we used to take and we always tried to control the border by taking some steps. But this is impossible especially because of the chaos. Now, if we want to talk about your border with Mexico, there must be cooperation between Mexico and the United States. You cannot just control it as the United States. So, who to cooperate with in Iraq? They don't have a state, they don't have an army, they don't have police. So, the chaos will affect you in this way and you have chaos on your border. But we try, of course.
Question: Are there specific examples of the things you have done?
Answer: You mean on the borders?
Answer: The only thing is that there are guards, but the specific thing that the United States did is to attack our guards on the borders. In many separate incidents they attacked our guards on the borders with airplanes and tanks and they killed many of them. Actually, the only thing we can do is to watch the borders; this is the only procedures that we have been doing since the beginning of the80 s.
Question: Do you believe that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction after the first Gulf war? What is your own opinion based on the intelligence and your meetings with the Iraqis?
Answer: Our opinion is only based on the UN inspectors who went to Iraq and who submitted their report to the Security Council. It was very clear that there were no WMD. So, we do not have any other indication against or with Saddam Hussein. The opinion of most people in the world is based on the UN report. So, we do not believe, in Syria, that there are any WMD. Where have they disappeared to? They could discover the military aircraft buried in the sand, so they should have found some trace of WMD. It's now been seven months since the occupation. So, we do not believe this, and none of the Western officials I have met or others believe this.
Question: Mr. President, there are some documents--the story has not come out yet-indicating that Saddam was negotiating with North Korea to try to build a factory for missiles and get the production facility in Iraq. The documents that have been found in Baghdad indicated the negotiations took place in Syria and the Syrian government may or may not have known about it and there are some people who conducted the negotiations who are still here?
Answer: Between Saddam and North Korea?
Question: Yes and they took place in Syria.
Answer: This is the first time I have heard this story. We heard a lot of stories about Syria, but this is the first time to hear such a story. He was never able to trust Syria and he never tried and we never tried to make any relation between him and any other country because he did not trust us in the first place. We did not have this kind of relationship with Saddam Hussein at all.
Question: You have acknowledged in another interviews that there was some arms or trafficking that came through Syria to Iraq, so this would be a further example of that?
Answer: This is what the American officials tell us, and we said to them after you have occupied Iraq, you have all the documents in Iraq to find out. We told the Americans if you discover any evidence that would show any side in Syria has dealt with that or talked about this, we would love to know. Until now we received nothing from the Americans and before the war I told the Americans if you have any evidence that there is smuggling of weapons into Iraq, please let us know. We actually inspected a huge amounts of the goods that were transited into Iraq and we never found any armaments. They spoke about night vision goggles. I think you can buy them anywhere, in any supermarket; these are not armaments. But certainly in Syria we do not have any information that any armaments were smuggled from Syria to Iraq.
Question: It seems that after September 11 there was a period of cooperation where Syria offered the United States some help in the war against terrorism, but since then the relationship seems to have declined. Why is that?
Answer: I believe there are common and many joint interests between Syria and the United States, but I think there is sometimes a difference in vision about these interests between Syrian and American officials. You are speaking about cooperation; Syria offered help to the United States concerning combating terrorism. You said some help. It is not some help, it is extensive help.
Question: Can you be more specific?
Answer: Most of the Congressional delegations that came to Syria started their meetings by conveying thanks to us for saving American lives.
Question: Can you tell us how you saved American lives?
Answer: Yes of course, but not in details. It is related to the security.
Question: Why not in details?
Answer: Because it is not only related to the Syrian intelligence, but to the CIA. So, we have to agree with the CIA if we want to announce the details. Because if these details were announced publicly, they might have some negative impact on someone and because this cooperation is still continuous; it has not stopped. You are represented in the Congress by members of Congress and they know much of the details. For example, the intelligence committee in the Congress knows a lot of the details. But I can give you some details that there were planned operations against American forces in certain areas and they were discovered by Syrian intelligence, and the information was passed to the relevant intelligence authorities in the United States before these operations take place; these operations were preempted. There were many terrorists who were arrested by Syria. There were analyses about terrorism in general that Syria offered to the Americans. But what I can tell you is that in about seven separate incidents, Syria helped to save American lives.
As I have said the cooperation on this scale continued. This poses the same question you have posed; how do we continue to cooperate in combating terrorism with the United States while our political relationship deteriorates? We certainly have a common interest in combating terrorism. As I have said we also have a serious common interest with the United States to have a stable Iraq. We have a common interest with the United States in achieving peace in the region.
So, we do not see that the political relation deteriorated because we have contradictory interest with the U.S., quite the contrary we have common interests with the U.S. As I said Syrian-American relations for some reason fluctuate in different periods of time. Whenever the Syrian relations deteriorated with United States, invariably, it was the Israeli factor that caused that deterioration. What do I mean by the Israeli factor? It could be Israeli influence or effect in the United States through the lobby, or it could be the complete biased attitude of the Americans towards the Israeli government. In fact if you take the Israeli element out of the picture, I cannot see the difference between Syria and the U.S.; there are no differences between Syria and the United States about what we want to achieve in the region.
The Israeli factor is the only one that is still pushing Syrian-American relations into a difficult period. Otherwise, why did we cooperate with the United States against terrorism? Why did we help the United States in combating terrorism? We could have ignored that completely. This makes me ask this question: if Syria is cooperating with the U.S. and offering a great help including saving American lives, how can the U.S. response be so negative towards Syria? The problem is not Iraq, and the evidence for this is that the relations between Syria and the United Kingdom were good before the war and during the war and after the war, and there is cooperation between Syria and the U.K. regarding different issues even though the U.K. is taking the same side as the United States. So, how could we have good relations with the United Kingdom and bad relations with the United States?
So, if the problem is related to Syria, we should have bad relations with the U.K. Maybe some of the question, part of the question or part of the answer, should be taken from relations between the politicians inside the administration. Let me be more specific, the cooperation in combating terrorism is related to the relations between the CIA and our intelligence, while in politics it is related to the State Department. So, maybe different institutions have different points of view. In Syria we have cooperation between intelligence, the foreign affairs ministry, the president and other officials. We have one point of view for foreign affairs; we do not have many points of view. Maybe this is one of the reasons, I mean it is an American issue, we do not interfere.
Question: I saw an interview in which you referred to Colin Powell as representing the rational wing of the American government. I guess that must mean that the Pentagon represents the irrational wing?
Answer: We did not deal with the Pentagon, but we have dealt with Mr. Powell. I don't know who led the United States to be in the position it is in today. But if we say that Powell represents the rational trend in the American administration, so all other trends who do not agree with this are bound to be the irrational trend. I mean everybody who supported the war without calculating the consequences is irrational. Everybody who is involved in putting the US in this difficult situation - if you do not want to call it a difficult situation, let us say not a good situation - is not rational because he is not working in the interests of the US, this is how we see it from our region.
Question: Mr. President, if I can go back to one of those points? In discussing this issue, and I understand your concern about not violating security, you said there were seven incidents in which you offered help. If we can just have the details of one of them, it would make for a more compelling story.
Answer: Actually, I don't have in mind, but we can ask the intelligence in which region. We do not give very specific details because as I said it may affect the cooperation, but we may give general information about one of these incidents. I can't give it to you now because I don't have it in details.
Question: Can you say which is the most recent of the seven?
Answer: Some of them I don't know personally, but one of them I knew and I called a leader to tell him to send us somebody. I was involved personally in one of them. But let us see which one we can give information about, because I know it is beneficial for me as well and for Syria. The Americans know one of these stories, but if you want to be very precise we can give it to you after the interview. I will do that after the interview.
Question: Has the deterioration of the political relationship begun to have an impact on the intelligence relationship?
Answer: No. This is the strange thing. It is fluctuating like any other relationship, but it is not affected at all by this. But with the passing of time it may be affected. I mean in the course of time when two countries are cooperating but have a contradictory political life, then cooperation is definitely going to be influenced. But I tell you why cooperation was not badly affected in combating terrorism because we in Syria are so serious against terrorism and we are so interested in combating terrorism and in helping in the war against terrorism. We are always going to be involved in combating terrorism whether the U.S. cooperated with us or whether we are on our own. We would always be against terrorism.
Question: I don't think you can blame the decline in relations entirely on differences within the American administration. I would like to mention two examples--the grand mufti of Syria calling for suicide attacks against the Americans at the beginning of the war. And also in a similar case Syria continued to express support for groups that carry out suicide operations in Israel that even the Palestinian government condemned. It seems that Syria has taken a very extreme position in supporting suicide attacks, which most of the world calls terrorism?
Answer: Referring to the mufti's fatwa, the mufti is not an official figure, he is a religious figure and he expresses the religious opinion regarding a certain issue. The government or the state does not interfere in the religious opinion of men of religion, they have their own opinions. This has nothing to do with our political opinion and work. Regarding the organizations you are talking about, we never offered them any help at any stage at all. In the first place these organizations do not have their base in Syria.
A few years ago Israel expelled some of the leaders of these organizations and they came to Syria, but the popular base of the organizations and the majority of the leaders of these organizations are in the Palestinian occupied territories, they are not in Syria. They have neither asked us for any support, nor did we offer them any support. They only live in Syria, they are a very small number, they only do some media activities with no other work at all. Neither the laws in Syria allow the government to support any party with weapons or with arms, nor do we give them money. There are no direct or common borders between us and Israel. The only borders we have with Israel is the military borders which are full with the army and mines and totally controlled. So, we did not support these organizations and they do not have even cadres in Syria. The normal event should be for them to go back to the Palestinian territories.
Question: Are they still operating their media offices here?
Answer: No. They stopped.
Question: Did you tell them?
Answer: Actually they told us before the visit of Colin Powell and I told him that. They said we are going to stop because they know that there are American accusations against us and we welcomed their suggestion to stop their media activities. The only thing they did is to pick up the phone and call the media and they attack Arafat, they attack Palestinians verbally.
Question: How come Syria refuses to condemn any of the attacks that these groups carry out against civilians?
Answer: I have always stressed in Syria that we are against violence, this is our principle. We have always stressed that we support a peaceful solution to the conflict. We have always said we are against killing civilians, women and children. These are our common principles and they are public. We differ with many of our European friends and even the Americans about wasting time in condemning something here and something there instead of doing something to achieve peace or to solving the problem. What we believe is that there is a problem that is happening on a daily basis. This problem is a matter of action and reaction, cause and effect. You can not really address the effect and forget about the cause, this is on the one hand. On the other hand, we can not deal on terms of double standards. Before any operation by the Palestinians took place at the beginning of the intifada, the Israelis killed more than a hundred Palestinians and there was not a single Israeli killed and nothing was done to stop the killing of Palestinians.
Therefore, we believe in Syria that everybody in the world should condemn violence. We see that the only solution is for Israel to withdraw from Arab occupied territories and to dismantle the settlements. And this is consistent with what you have said about the vision of President Bush to have a two-state solution and to have peace in the region. So, what I would like to say is that instead of wasting our time in supporting or condemning, let us go to the root cause and eliminate the cause of turbulence and instability in the region. This would be within the framework of the vision of achieving peace in the region. My point that I want to stress to you is that dealing on a partial basis is not going to solve the problem. We should address the whole issue at the same time.
Question: What are you going to do about the Syrian Accountability Act? I know the Syrian position has been that it will harm the U.S. more. Are you going to do anything to meet the conditions that they are demanding in the act?
Answer: There are two opinions about the affect of the act, some people are saying it is going to have an affect. Some people are saying it is not going to have an affect. I have a third opinion. The United States is a superpower. It certainly is influential in the world; in economy, in trade, in politics, in everything. Therefore, it is normal for us to seek good relations with the United States in all fields. Regardless of the effects of the act, I see it personally as a new obstacle in the way of good relations between Syria and the United States. Therefore, I am not going to think about this Accountability Act in terms of its economic affect on Syria. The reason is that our region is living in such a turbulent time and the times are getting worse and worse by the day. But as I have said earlier, we look at the United States role as an essential role for bringing stability to the region and at least to Iraq. But I would also like to add that Syria is also an essential player in achieving peace in the region.
There can be no peace in the region without Syria. And Syria is important for the future stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq. If there is no cooperation between Syria and the United States about all these issues, I see that it is going to be very difficult to achieve any of them either in Iraq or in the region. Therefore, I look at the Syrian Accountability Act as an obstacle in the way of such cooperation that will be so good for our region; the cooperation between Syria and the USA. As for its other effects, we have good relations with the European countries and now we are at an advanced state in our negotiations for the association agreement with the European Union. At any rate, the Syria Accountability Act now depends on how the American administration is going to deal with it and how President Bush will deal with it.
Question: Let's assume he is going to sign it and make certain demands on Syria, are you going to meet any of those demands?
Answer: What demands?
Question: Some of the ones we've discussed.
Answer: They talked about the Iraqi assets. And it has been solved. We had an Iraqi delegation and solved the issue. They talked about the border and I gave them the same answer that I gave you. We've been doing our best for more than twenty years but we can't fully control the borders. They know that. We said to them, `You are the superpower; not Syria.' We have a five hundred kilometer border with Iraq and for us it is a huge border. We can't fully control it. We are only18 million. They talked about supporting these organizations and I gave them the same answer that I gave you; that we don't support or give money or armament. We only support them politically. We support the concepts: liberation and peace.
So, we don't disagree about these issues actually. That is why I asked what demands. We have a principle in dealing with any country: we don't mind if we do things to help another country to achieve their own interest with our interest at the same time. We don't mind if we help them get their interest but we won't cooperate with any country which asks us to do something that is against our interest. What I would like to say is that the common interests between Syria and the United States are many.
Question: When you started out you seemed to be bringing an agenda of reform and liberalization. But then it seems from what people say that some of the old guard got nervous about it and now you don't hear as much free discussion in Syria and likewise the opening up of the economy seems to have slowed. Why?
Answer: Any effort to reform would certainly face difficulties. There are some obstacles related to the mentality. I mean how can others understand or see the benefits of this reform. This is normal. This is a problem of the mentality or the generation. On the other side, there is also the available ability to carry out this reform. When they say that the movement is slow, I think this is a positive indicator, not a negative one. The reason is that our ambitions are so huge and the Syrians are very ambitious people. But at the same time, I think it is very difficult to have a set pace that you have to abide by. This is very subjective and personal. You have to decide what pace you can sustain in a country. In some fields you move fast; in others you move slow. But for me, I can tell you that I didn't have any opposition or obstacles from anyone in the government.
The major problem that I am facing as somebody who is responsible in this country is the cadre; the efficient, trained people to do the reform particularly in the administrative reform. As far as I know, the United States excels in administrative institutions. If you don't have successful administration you can't really make progress in any domain. That is why, we issued many laws that are ambitious to achieve reform but they were very difficult to implement because we didn't have the trained people who can implement these laws very well. So instead of achieving the100 % results you want to achieve from issuing a certain law, you only get a small percentage of the law. This is really one of our major problems that can be solved only by cooperating with other more developed countries by getting expertise from other countries. Lately, the French are helping us in administrative reform because our system is basically French. This is really the major obstacle. But regarding other points, I don't agree because dialogue is really improving and escalating and it is always going on among the Syrians.
We are now conducting a dialogue here and I am sure you could have conducted this dialogue with any Syrian in my country. Of course, we also have measures for this issue. Syria is a multi-confessional society and embraces many ethnicities and many religions. We don't allow any violation of this multi-confessional system that would harm our national unity and our living together or national security. Apart from that, we can see that in all areas we need a more social, educational, and cultural progress. All these issues are really interrelated and we can't separate one from the other.
Question: Why are your eight most prominent critics in jail?
Answer: Who evaluated them as most prominent?
Question: They were certainly outspoken at the time before they were arrested.
Answer: No. If you go down to the street now, you will probably see more prominent speakers than they. People in the street criticize everything. If we put in prison anyone who criticizes us, I don't think we would have enough prisons. Everybody criticizes in Syria. As I told you a little while ago, anything that would harm our security or national identity is against our law and that will be punished. When you speak in a sectarian or religious way that creates problems among sects or when you try to harm or violate our national unity. Some of those whom you are referring to did not criticize the government at all. They are in prison because they were evading their taxes.
Question: But they weren't brought upon charges of not paying their taxes; they were brought upon charges of speaking against the state.
Answer: No, there is nothing in the law to put you in jail if you speak against the state. We don't have a law for that.
Question: But the main point is that there was a period where dialogue was open, people were going to forums and there were discussions. It has all stopped. Why is that?
Answer: No, nothing has stopped. You can go to Al-Attasi institute and we have many others.
Question: Just two months ago they tried to have one in Aleppo and the men were arrested when they showed up.
Answer: That had to do with speaking about certain ethnicity. They didn't criticize the government; they talked about the rights of the Kurds. The Kurds are Syrians so what rights of the Kurds? It is something related to the national unity if you talk about ethnicities. We have Chechens, Armenians and you are not allowed in the law of Syria to talk about this. This is our law. I don't know them, but they make demonstrations for things related to this issue, which is not allowed in our law. It is not related to the regime.
Question: I think the larger point is that two years ago in Damascus you could hear any kind of discussion about democracy, law and economic reform but it is gone now.
Answer: No, it is not gone. I will give you the address of Attasi, which is opposition.
Question: But this is just one person. There used to be dozens.
Answer: Let me ask you a question: what is the ideal number?
Question: It is not a question of a number. It is a question that people no longer feel free to have an open discussion.
Answer: That is fine. Let us talk about the concept. If we were against democracy we would not allow anyone to talk. If we support democracy, we will allow the rest to talk. If we allow some, so why to allow those and not allow the others. Let's speak logically. Why to allow the first and second and I don't know how many but I know one of them who is the toughest against us and who is Attasi. I don't know about other citizens; but if we don't want them to talk why allow those. Very simple. Why don't you go and see for yourself?
Question: I have looked around for them. It is very hard to find.
Answer: We can give you the names. But if we were against, we won't allow anyone. We don't have to allow two, three, or whatever. It is the same result. That is not true. The people who commit mistakes about the issues I have just mentioned go to jail. I didn't issue this law. It is a very old law in Syria. It has been since the independence. So it is not an issue of democracy. It is an issue of the security of the country.
Question: On economic reform, people are saying that it is not happening because there are too many people around you, such as your relatives and relatives of high officials, who have strong economic interests. They are blocking any changes to liberalize the economy.
Answer: This is very normal. Why around me? What do you mean by around me?
Question: You want me to give you names? One example is that your cousin controls a cell telephone network and we could go down the list.
Answer: He is Syrian like any other Syrian and whether he is cousin, brother, friend, or anybody else there is a Syrian law. People talk about corruption and many things like this and this is one of the issues that I started with in fighting corruption. This is normal. But I think the major problem in doing reform is to have efficient administration in the government. I think this is the problem we are facing now. The other problem in the economic reform is the level of qualified people to lead this reform. This is the real problem that we have. Others talk but this is the real problem we have.
Question: So you don't think there is an old guard or family members who are blocking the reform?
Answer: How do you define the old guard?
Question: People who worked with your father in the security agencies and those around him as ministers who have been powerful for a long time.
Answer: You have young people who didn't work with my father and who have the same mentality. So it is not a matter of old guards or new guards. I started talking about the mentality. You have people who don't want reform and you have people who support the reform. This is very normal. It has nothing to do with the generation. Some of this generation whom you call `old guard' are more enthusiastic about reform than me. Sometimes you don't have to go so fast. You have to be a little slow to study the situation better. That is why I asked you what you mean by `old guard.' It means the old mentality that wants to stand still in this position. It doesn't want to move forwards.
You have people who are old and people who are young who have this mentality; there are people I know and people whom I don't know. You have people in the public sector and people in the private sector. So you have them everywhere. But this is what I call `mentality.' I don't call them old guard. For me as a president, I have the authority to do everything according to the law through the institutions. I have the authority to take the steps that I am convinced of. It doesn't matter if I am surrounded by people who agree or don't agree with that. I am talking about that in abstract terms. I am talking about the mandate I have. But I am not a dictator. Of course I have to discuss every step with everybody in the government and outside it and be affected negatively or positively by the audience whom I may hear. I am not specialized in economy. If I want to talk about private banks, we issued a decree two years and a half ago but we didn't start till few months ago.
During that period, we had a discussion. Are we ready to start it or not. This is one of the reasons for the delay. People started saying why they didn't start private banks although I was very enthusiastic. Because we heard many different points of view and it is a new experience for us. We took a long time in order to formulate and vision until we formulated a final vision about what we really want to do and how we can do it. It took us a long time. Before and after the law there were people with private banking and there were people against it. But in the final analysis when we had to make the decision to move forward I made the decision.
Question: Is the Baath Party for the reform, is it part of the mentality that slows things down, or is it a mix?
Answer: You have both in the Baath Party, like any part of the society. Some of them want to reform the party, the government, and the whole country and some are the opposite. This is normal because it is a new process. When we talk about reform and moving forward quickly it is like when you move the car very fast, there is an opposite power that tries to take it back to keep it in position. But we are moving forward: a little bit fast, a little bit slow but steadily. We are moving forward slowly by steadily.
Question: And how do you deal with the legacy of your father? On the one hand, I am sure he is an inspiration to you, but sometimes an inspiration can also be an inhibition because people don't want to do things differently from the way your father did it. Do you think you have the freedom you need to differ with your father's course on issues?
Answer: I am his son just inside the house. I am going to be different from him. This is normal. The son is not a copy of his father. He takes some things from his parents but he will get many things from the society; and the father is not an isolated picture. Part of him is from the society. So it is a mixture. It is very theoretical to say how much of you is part of your father and how much is independent. But as a president, the first thing is to make your decisions and your vision based on the society, the country and the people. This is one of the things that President Assad used to do. That is why we can converge. Let's talk about the vision of Syrian society about the Golan Heights. It has been now 36 years. It is two generations. We don't differ about this subject.
The needs of modernization are quiet different between the1960 s and2003 . So we don't have to converge in this. It is a different field. We converge in certain fields but we don't converge in others because we have different needs and different circumstances. So, this is how we can compare. In his time, in the late sixties he was considered a great modernizer. Maybe if you just want to move from2000 another ten years, I won't be considered as a modernizer like today because I am going to be from a different generation. That depends on the circumstances and on myself, so this is how I look at it. But it is not inhibiting because at the end I am doing my job towards the country. It is not a family affair.
Question: But some people argue that if you really want to modernize you have got to dismantle some of the stuff that he did. If you want to reform the political system in the country and bring real democracy and if you want to make an open economy you have got to take apart what he built.
Answer: Changing people is normal. We have to change. I am not with the word that you should get rid of everything that happened before and bring something totally new and I don't agree to stand still. I believe that doing things gradually is something that has to be continuous. We don't have to make a big change now and stop next year. We have to keep changing. And when you want to change you want to know why the change and what is your goal from this change. If you want to change just to get rid of some people, that is very easy. But you won't get anything. You have to always mix between generations and between experiences. I believe in that. You have to mix between mentalities. For me as a president, I think it is better to have two different opinions than to have two with one opinion even if they are against each other because I mix them and take the best of the two. So if you have different ideas, different generations and different mentalities even old guards with new guards, using this term, it is very beneficial if you talk about dialogue because every process of modernization should be based on dialogue. I don't have the full vision and nobody else does. One can see from one angle but with the dialogue you can see the whole picture very clearly and you can move. The role of the president is to extract the best of each idea, put them in one idea, and move. That is how I think because I cannot be an expert in everything: politics and economy, etc. This is impossible. This is how I see modernization. I don't like to simplify things; just get rid of old guards and you have modernization. This is very simple. It is not a farm. It is a state. You cannot make it very simple.
Question: In Egypt there are discussions about who is going to follow President Mubarak and some people say, ``We are not Syria." Do you find that insulting?
Answer: No, because it is not President Assad who brought me to power. When he died I didn't have any position. So you should direct this question to the Syrian people. If you go back to CNN and other channels who conducted interviews with Syrians you will find that I came through the Syrians, not through President Assad. People trusted him and they trusted me because I am his son. This is part of our culture. We are not in the United States. It is different.
Question: My last question is on the subject that we started with because as you pointed out, Israel seems to be the heart of the problem between the United States and Syria and you said that you can imagine if there was a withdrawal and settlement of the Palestinian question then there will be peace and the normalization as the Arab League described it. What is your vision of that normalization? Can you imagine a day when there is free trade between Israel and Syria and when Israelis and Syrians travel back and forth to each other's countries and you are not at war?
Answer: Let me go right to the point. This word has no limit. Normalization means like the relations between Syria and the United States. One day is good. The other day is bad. It is like the relations between Syria and France; and like the relations between Syria and other countries with whom it is not at war. In the1980 s we had some problems with the UK and we cut our relations. So when you talk about normalization, it is very wide. You may have warm or cold relations.
Question: That is between the governments. What about the relation between the people?
Answer: That takes time. It will happen but it takes time. This is the difference. Between the governments it is a matter of signatures on some procedure. But between the peoples it takes time and it depends on the will. Let me talk about the Syrians and I can talk on behalf of the others. As a Syrian who lives among the Syrians and represents them, I can tell you that the Syrians always look for peace in different circumstances. Now we are in the worst situation regarding peace but they still look for peace. If you don't have hatred, there is no problem. That is why I can say I am always optimistic about peace even if there is no indication of peace like I told you at the beginning. But this is the only option that everybody in this region has. I am very optimistic after the peace is signed. If it is a just and comprehensive peace there will be no problem. Everything you are asking about will be real.