PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to al-Manar TV broadcast on Thursday. We are very pleased to publish it in two parts
Al-MANAR: Mr President, we have talked about the steadfastness of the Syrian leadership and the Syrian state.
We have discussed the progress being achieved on the battlefield, and strengthening the alliance between Syria and the resistance. These are all within the same front. From another perspective, there is diplomatic activity stirring waters that have been stagnant for two and a half years. Before we talk about this and about the Geneva conference and the red lines that Syria has drawn, there was a simple proposition or a simple solution suggested by the former head of the coalition, Muaz al-Khatib. He said that the president, together with 500 other dignitaries, would be allowed to leave the country within 20 days, and the crisis would be over. Why don’t you meet this request and put an end to the crisis?
President Assad: I have always talked about the basic principle: that the Syrian people alone have the right to decide whether the president should remain or leave. So, anybody speaking on this subject should state which part of the Syrian people they represent and who granted them the authority to speak on their behalf. As for this initiative, I haven’t actually read it, but I was very happy that they allowed me 20 days and 500 people! I don’t know who proposed the initiative; I don’t care much about names.
Al-Manar: He actually said that you would be given 20 days, 500 people, and no guarantees. You’ll be allowed to leave but with no guarantee whatsoever on whether legal action would be taken against you or not. Mr President, this brings us to the negotiations, I am referring to Geneva 2. The Syrian government and leadership have announced initial agreement to take part in this conference. If this conference is held, there will be a table with the Syrian flag on one side and the flag of the opposition groups on the other. How can you convince the Syrian people after two and a half years of crisis that you will sit face to face at the same negotiating table with these groups?
President Assad: First of all, regarding the flag, it is meaningless without the people it represents. When we put a flag on a table or anywhere else, we talk about the people represented by that flag. This question can be put to those who raise flags they call Syrian but are different from the official Syrian flag. So, this flag has no value when it does not represent the people. Secondly, we will attend this conference as the official delegation and legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. But, whom do they represent? When the conference is over, we return to Syria, we return home to our people. But when the conference is over, whom do they return to – five-star hotels? Or to the foreign ministries of the states that they represent – which doesn’t include Syria of course – in order to submit their reports? Or do they return to the intelligence services of those countries?
So, when we attend this conference, we should know very clearly the positions of some of those sitting at the table – and I say ‘some’ because the conference format is not clear yet and as such we do not have details as to how the patriotic Syrian opposition will be considered or the other opposition parties in Syria. As for the opposition groups abroad and their flag, we know that we are attending the conference not to negotiate with them, but rather with the states that back them; it will appear as though we are negotiating with the slaves, but essentially we are negotiating with their masters. This is the truth, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves.
Al-Manar: Are you, in the Syrian leadership, convinced that these negotiations will be held next month?
President Assad: We expect them to happen, unless they are obstructed by other states. As far as we are concerned in Syria, we have announced a couple of days ago that we agree in principle to attend.
Al-Manar: When you say in principle, it seems that you are considering other options.
President Assad: In principle, we are in favour of the conference as a notion, but there are no details yet. For example, will there be conditions placed before the conference? If so, these conditions may be unacceptable and we would not attend. So the idea of the conference, of a meeting, in principle is a good one. We will have to wait and see.
Al-Manar: Let’s talk, Mr President, about the conditions put by the Syrian leadership. What are Syria’s conditions?
President Assad: Simply put, our only condition is that anything agreed upon in any meeting inside or outside the country, including the conference, is subject to the approval of the Syrian people through a popular referendum. This is the only condition. Anything else doesn’t have any value. That is why we are comfortable with going to the conference. We have no complexes. Either side can propose anything, but nothing can be implemented without the approval of the Syrian people. And as long as we are the legitimate representatives of the people, we have nothing to fear.
Al-Manar: Let’s be clear, Mr President. There is a lot of ambiguity in Geneva 1 and Geneva 2 about the transitional period and the role of President Bashar al-Assad in that transitional period. Are you prepared to hand over all your authorities to this transitional government? And how do you understand this ambiguous term?
President Assad: This is what I made clear in the initiative I proposed in January this year. They say they want a transitional government in which the president has no role. In Syria we have a presidential system, where the President is head of the republic and the Prime Minister heads the government. They want a government with broad authorities. The Syrian constitution gives the government full authorities. The president is the commander-in-chief of the Army and Armed Forces and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council. All the other institutions report directly to the government. Changing the authorities of the president is subject to changing the constitution; the president cannot just relinquish his authorities, he doesn’t have the constitutional right. Changing the constitution requires a popular referendum.
When they want to propose such issues, they might be discussed in the conference, and when we agree on something – if we agree, we return home and put it to a popular referendum and then move on. But for them to ask for the amendment of the constitution in advance, this cannot be done, neither by the president nor by the government.
Al-Manar: Frankly, Mr President, all the international positions taken against you and all your political opponents said that they don’t want a role for al-Assad in Syria’s future. This is what the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said and this is what the Turks and the Qataris said, and also the Syrian opposition. Will President Assad be nominated for the forthcoming presidential elections in 2014?
President Assad: What I know is that Saud al-Faisal is a specialist in American affairs, I don’t know if he knows anything about Syrian affairs. If he wants to learn, that’s fine! As to the desires of others, I repeat what I have said earlier: the only desires relevant are those of the Syrian people. With regards to the nomination, some parties have said that it is preferable that the president shouldn’t be nominated for the 2014 elections. This issue will be determined closer to the time; it is still too early to discuss this. When the time comes, and I feel, through my meetings and interactions with the Syrian people, that there is a need and public desire for me to nominate myself, I will not hesitate. However, if I feel that the Syrian people do not want me to lead them, then naturally I will not put myself forward. They are wasting their time on such talk.
Al-Manar: Mr President, you mentioned the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. This makes me ask about Syria’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, with Qatar, with Turkey, particularly if we take into account that their recent position in the Arab ministerial committee was relatively moderate. They did not directly and publically call for the ousting of President Assad. Do you feel any change or any support on the part of these countries for a political solution to the Syrian crisis? And is Syria prepared to deal once more with the Arab League, taking into account that the Syrian government asked for an apology from the Arab League?
President Assad: Concerning the Arab states, we see brief changes in their rhetoric but not in their actions. The countries that support the terrorists have not changed; they are still supporting terrorism to the same extent. Turkey also has not made any positive steps. As for Qatar, their role is also the same, the role of the funder – the bank funding the terrorists and supporting them through Turkey.
So, overall, no change. As for the Arab League, in Syria we have never pinned our hopes on the Arab League. Even in the past decades, we were barely able to dismantle the mines set for us in the different meetings, whether in the summits or in meetings of the foreign ministers. So, in light of this and its recent actions, can we really expect it to play a role? We are open to everybody, we never close our doors. But we should also be realistic and face the truth that they are unable to offer anything, particularly since a significant number of the Arab states are not independent.
They receive their orders from the outside. Some of them are sympathetic to us in their hearts, but they cannot act on their feelings because they are not in possession of their decisions. So, no, we do not pin any hopes on the Arab League.
Al-Manar: Mr President, this leads us to ask: if the Arab environment is as such, and taking into account the developments on the ground and the steadfastness, the Geneva conference and the negotiations, the basic question is: what if the political negotiations fail? What are the consequences of the failure of political negotiations?
President Assad: This is quite possible, because there are states that are obstructing the meeting in principle, and they are going only to avoid embarrassment. They are opposed to any dialogue whether inside or outside Syria. Even the Russians, in several statements, have dampened expectations from this conference.
But we should also be accurate in defining this dialogue, particularly in relation to what is happening on the ground. Most of the factions engaged in talking about what is happening in Syria have no influence on the ground; they don’t even have direct relationships with the terrorists. In some instances these terrorists are directly linked with the states that are backing them, in other cases, they are mere gangs paid to carry out terrorist activities.
So, the failure of the conference will not significantly change the reality inside Syria, because these states will not stop supporting the terrorists – conference or no conference – and the gangs will not stop their subversive activities. So it has no impact on them.
Al-Manar: Mr President, the events in Syria are spilling over to neighbouring countries. We see what’s happening in Iraq, the explosions in Al-Rihaniye in Turkey and also in Lebanon. In Ersal, Tripoli, Hezbollah taking part in the fighting in Al-Qseir. How does Syria approach the situation in Lebanon, and do you think the Lebanese policy of dissociation is still applied or accepted?
President Assad: Let me pose some questions based on the reality in Syria and in Lebanon about the policy of dissociation in order not to be accused of making a value judgment on whether this policy is right or wrong. Let’s start with some simple questions: Has Lebanon been able to prevent Lebanese interference in Syria? Has it been able to prevent the smuggling of terrorists or weapons into Syria or providing a safe haven for them in Lebanon? It hasn’t; in fact, everyone knows that Lebanon has contributed negatively to the Syrian crisis. Most recently, has Lebanon been able to protect itself against the consequences of the Syrian crisis, most markedly in Tripoli and the missiles that have been falling over different areas of Beirut or its surroundings? It hasn’t. So what kind of dissociation are we talking about? For Lebanon to dissociate itself from the crisis is one thing, and for the government to dissociate itself is another.
When the government dissociates itself from a certain issue that affects the interests of the Lebanese people, it is in fact dissociating itself from the Lebanese citizens. I’m not criticising the Lebanese government – I’m talking about general principles. I don’t want it to be said that I’m criticising this government.
If the Syrian government were to dissociate itself from issues that are of concern to the Syrian people, it would also fail. So in response to your question with regards to Lebanon’s policy of dissociation, we don’t believe this is realistically possible. When my neighbour’s house is on fire, I cannot say that it’s none of my business because sooner or later the fire will spread to my house.
Al-Manar: Mr President, what would you say to the supporters of the axis of resistance? We are celebrating the anniversary of the victory of the resistance and the liberation of south Lebanon, in an atmosphere of promises of victory, which Mr Hasan Nasrallah has talked about. You are saying with great confidence that you will emerge triumphant from this crisis. What would you say to all this audience? Are we about to reach the end of this dark tunnel?
President Assad: I believe that the greatest victory achieved by the Arab resistance movements in the past years and decades is primarily an intellectual victory. This resistance wouldn’t have been able to succeed militarily if they hadn’t been able to succeed and stand fast against a campaign aimed at distorting concepts and principles in this region. Before the civil war in Lebanon, some people used to say that Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness; this is similar to saying that a man’s intelligence lies in his stupidity, or that honour is maintained through corruption. This is an illogical contradiction.
The victories of the resistance at different junctures proved that this concept is not true, and it showed that Lebanon’s weakness lies in its weakness and Lebanon’s strength lies in its strength. Lebanon’s strength is in its resistance and these resistance fighters you referred to.
Today, more than ever before, we are in need of these ideas, of this mindset, of this steadfastness and of these actions carried out by the resistance fighters. The events in the Arab world during the past years have distorted concepts to the extent that some Arabs have forgotten that the real enemy is still Israel and have instead created internal, sectarian, regional or national enemies.
Today we pin our hopes on these resistance fighters to remind the Arab people, through their achievements, that our enemy is still the same. As for my confidence in victory, if we weren’t so confident we wouldn’t have been able to stand fast or to continue this battle after two years of a global attack.
This is not a tripartite attack like the one in 1956; it is in fact a global war waged against Syria and the resistance. We have absolute confidence in our victory, and I assure them that Syria will always remain, even more so than before, supportive of the resistance and resistance fighters everywhere in the Arab world.
Al-Manar: In conclusion, it has been my great honour to conduct this interview with Your Excellency, President Bashar al-Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic. Thank you very much.
President Assad: You are welcome. I would like to congratulate Al-Manar channel, the channel of resistance, on the anniversary of the liberation. and to congratulate the Lebanese people and every resistance fighter in Lebanon.
Al-Manar: Thank you.