President Bashar al-Assad gave the following interview to the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper:
Interviewer: Mr President, how do you view the situation in your country? The Syrian Army has lost control over large parts of Syria, in other words those areas are outside the control of central government. What’s your take on the situation?
President Assad: Your question requires us to put things into their proper context: this is not a conventional war with two armies fighting to control or liberate particular areas or parts of land. What we are in fact dealing with is a form of guerrilla warfare.
for the Syrian Army, there has not been any instance where our Armed Forces have planned to enter a particular location and have not succeeded. Having said this, the Army is not present – and should not be present – in every corner of Syria. What is more significant than controlling areas of land, is striking terrorists. We are confident that we can successfully fight terrorism in Syria, but the bigger issue is the ensuing damage and its cost. The crisis has already had a heavy toll but our biggest challenges will come once the crisis is over.
Interviewer: In your recent interview with Al-Manar it appeared as though you were preparing the Syrian public for a protracted struggle. Was that your intention?
President Assad: No, this was not specific to Al-Manar. From the early days of the crisis, whenever I was asked, I have stated that this crisis is likely to be prolonged due to foreign interference. Any internal crisis can go in one of two ways: either it is resolved or it escalates into a civil war. Neither has been the case for Syria because of the foreign component, which seeks to extend the duration of the crisis both politically and militarily; I think its fair to say that my predictions were right.
Interviewer: Mr President, how do you expect to overcome the large-scale destruction that has been inflicted in Syria?
President Assad: In the same way you, in Germany, overcame the devastation after World War II, and in the same way many other nations have progressed and been rebuilt after their wars. I am confident Syria will follow the same path. As long as we have resilient people, we can rebuild the country. We have done this before and we can do it again, learning from all we have been through.
In terms of funding, we have been a self-sufficient country for a very long time. Of course we will need to be more productive than before as a result of the situation. Friendly countries have helped us in the past and continue to offer their support, maybe in the form of loans in the future. It may take a long time, but with our determination, our strength and our solidarity, we can rebuild the country
However, the more arduous challenge lies in rebuilding, socially and psychologically, those who have been affected by the crisis. It will not be easy to eliminate the social effects of the crisis, especially extremist ideologies. Real reconstruction is about developing minds, ideologies and values. Infrastructure is valuable, but not as valuable as human beings; reconstruction is about perpetuating both.
nterviewer: Mr President, during the crisis some areas of the country have become either more self-reliant or more reliant on external support. Do you think this could potentially lead to the re-drawing of borders?
President Assad: Do you mean within Syria or the region in general?
Interviewer: The region – one hundred years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
President Assad: One hundred years after Sykes-Picot, when we talk about re-drawing the borders in our region, we can use an analogy from architecture. Syria is like the keystone in the old architectural arches; by removing or tampering with the keystone, the arch will collapse.
If we apply this to the region, to the world, – any tampering with the borders of this region will result in re-drawing the maps of distant regions because this will have a domino effect which nobody can control. One of the superpowers may be able to initiate the process, but nobody – including that superpower, will be able to stop it; particularly since there are new social borders in the Middle East today that didn’t exist during Sykes-Picot. These new sectarian, ethnic and political borders make the situation much more complicated. Nobody can know what the Middle East will look like should there be an attempt to re-draw the map of the region. However, most likely that map will be one of multiple wars, which would transcend the Middle East spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific, which nobody can stop.
Interviewer: Mr President, in your opinion what will the region look like in the future?
President Assad: If we rule out the destructive scenario of division in your last question, I can envisage a completely different and more positive future, but it will depend on how we act as nations and societies. This scenario involves a number of challenges, first of which is restoring security and stability; our second challenge is the rebuilding process. However, our biggest and most important challenge lies in facing extremism.
It has become extremely clear that there has been a shift in the societies of our region away from moderation, especially religious moderation. The question is: can we restore these societies to their natural order? Can our diverse societies still coexist together as one natural whole? On this point allow me to clarify certain terms. The words tolerance and coexistence are often used to define our societies. However, the more precise and appropriate definition, of how our societies used to be – and how they should be, is harmonious. Contrary to perception, the issue is neither about tolerance – since there will come a day when you are not tolerant, nor is the issue about coexistence – since you co-exist with your adversaries, but rather it is about harmony.
What used to characterize us in the region was our harmony. You cannot say that your hand will coexist with or tolerate your foot because one compliments the other and both are a part of a harmonious whole.
Another challenge is political reform and the question of which political system would keep our society coherent: be it presidential, semi-presidential or parliamentary, as well as deciding the most appropriate legislation to govern political parties. In Germany, for example, you have the Christian Democratic Party. In Syria we could not have religious parties, neither Christian nor Muslim, because for us religion is for preaching and not for political practice. There are many other details, but the essence is in accepting others. If we cannot accept each other we cannot be democratic, even with the best constitution.
Interviewer: Mr President, where do you see secularism in the midst of the rising Islamic current in the region?
President Assad: This is a very important question; many in the region do not understand this relationship. The Middle East is a hub of different ideologies. Arab society is primarily based on two pillars: Pan-Arabism and Islam. Other ideologies do exist, such as communism, liberalism, Syrian nationalism, but these are not nearly as popular. Many people understand secularism as synonymous with communism in the past, in that it is against religion. In fact it is the complete opposite; for us in Syria secularism is about the freedom of confession including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the multiple diverse sects within these religions. Secularism is crucial to our national unity and sense of belonging.
Thererefore we have no choice but to strengthen secularism because religion is already strong in our region, and I stress here that this is very healthy. What is not healthy is extremism because it ultimately leads to terrorism; not every extremist is a terrorist, but every terrorist is definitely an extremist.
So in response to your question, we are a secular state that essentially treats its citizens equally, irrespective of religion, sect or ethnicity. All our citizens enjoy equal opportunities regardless of religious belief.
Syria is passing through most difficult circumstances, definitely not a spring
Interviewer: Mr President, how do you view the two-and-a-half years since the so-called ‘Arab Spring?’
This is a misconception. Spring does not include bloodshed, killing, extremism, destroying schools or preventing children from going to their schools, or preventing women from choosing what to wear and what is appropriate for them. Spring is the most beautiful season whilst we are going through the direst circumstances; it is definitely not Spring. Is Spring compatible with what is happening in Syria – the killing, the slaughtering, the beheading, the cannibalism, I leave it to you to decide.
Interviewer: What are the issues that the so-called “Arab Spring” is supposed to resolve?
President Assad: The solution doesn’t lie in the ‘Spring’ or in anything else, the solution lies in us. We are the ones who should provide the solutions, by being proactive instead of reactive. When we address our problems proactively we ensure that we get the right solutions. Solutions imposed reactively by the ‘Spring’ will only lead to deformed results.
Like many countries in the Middle East, we have numerous problems that we are aware of and view objectively. This is how these problems should be solved, in that the solutions are internally manufactured and not externally administered, as the latter would produce a distorted or stillborn solution. It is for this very reason that when we call for dialogue or solutions, they need to be home-grown in order to ensure that they lead to the Syria we aspire to. What is happening in Iraq now, and in Lebanon previously, are repercussions of the situation in Syria.
Interviewer: Mr President, you have rejected any form of foreign intervention and have warned that this would extend the battle to wider areas, have you reached this?
President Assad: Let’s be clear about this, there are two types of foreign intervention: indirect through proxies or agents, and direct intervention through a conventional war. We are experiencing the former. At the beginning of the crisis I warned that intervention in Syria – even indirectly, is similar to tampering with a fault line, it would lead to shockwaves throughout the region. At the time, many people –saw this
as President Assad threatening to extend the crisis beyond Syria’s borders. Clearly they did not understand what I meant at the time, but this is exactly what is happening now.
If we look at the reality in front of us, we can see clearly that what is happening in Iraq now, and in Lebanon previously, are repercussions of the situation in Syria, and this will only extend further and further. We are seeing these ramifications and the intervention is still indirect, so imagine the consequences of military intervention? The situation will, of course, be much worse and then we will witness the domino effect of widespread extremism, chaos and fragmentation.
Interviewer: You criticise countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Britain for their interference in the Syria crisis, isn’t it true that Russia and Iran are also involved?
President Assad: There is a significant difference between the co-cooperation of states as opposed to the destabilisation of a certain country and interference in its internal affairs. Cooperation between countries is conceived on the concept of mutual will, in a way that preserves their sovereignty, independence, stability and self-determination. Our relationship with Russia, Iran and other countries that support Syria are cooperative relations certified under international law.
The countries you mentioned, have adopted policies that meddle in Syria’s internal affairs, which is a flagrant violation of international law and our national sovereignty. The difference therefore, is that cooperation between countries is intended to preserve stability and perpetuate the prosperity of these nations, whilst foreign interference seeks to destabilise countries, spread chaos and perpetuate ignorance.
Interviewer: Sir, you have discussed the repercussions of the Syrian crisis on Iraq and Lebanon whose societies are based on what one might call a sectarian system. Do you think that such a system with Sunni and Shiite pillars could be established in Syria?
President Assad: Undoubtedly, sectarian systems in neighbouring countries, sectarian unrest or civil wars – as in Lebanon 30 years ago, will inevitably affect Syria. That is why Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 – to protect itself and to safeguard Lebanon. It is for this reason that we are observing carefully the unfolding events in Iraq – they will affect us directly. This was also for this reason that we adamantly opposed the war on Iraq, despite a mixture of American temptations and threats at the time. We rejected losing our stability in return for appeasing the Americans. Sectarian systems are dangerous and that is why we insist on the secular model where all citizens are equal regardless of religion.
Interviewer: Mr President, you are fighting “Jabhat Al-Nusra.” Can you tell us about it, what is this organization, who supports them, who supplies them with money and weapons?
President Assad: Jabhat Al-Nusra is an Al-Qaeda affiliated group with an identical ideology whose members live in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan as well as other Arab and Muslim countries; they are very well financed and have plenty of arms. It is difficult to trace their sources due to the fact that their support resides in a covert manner through wealthy individuals and organisations that adopt the same ideology.
Their primary aim is to establish an Islamic State in accordance to their interpretation of Islam. Central to their political thought is the Wahhabi doctrine – comparable to Al-Qaeda’s in Afghanistan. This ideology is
administered wherever they are present, especially on women. They claim to be applying Sharia Law and the Islamic Religion; however, in reality their actions are a complete distortion of the real religion of Islam. We have seen examples of their brutality on our satellite channels taken from footage they publish on purpose on YouTube in order to spread their ideology; a recent example was the beheading of an innocent man, which was aired on Belgian TV.
Interviewer: What is the motivation for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to assist and arm the terrorists against you, what do they seek to achieve?
President Assad: Firstly, I believe that this is a question they should be answering. I will respond by raising a few questions. Do they support the armed gangs because of their vehement belief in freedom and democracy as they claim in their media outlets? Do they harbour any form of democracy in their own countries, in order to properly support democracy in Syria. Do they have elected parliaments or constitutions voted on by their people? Have their populations decided at any time during the previous decades on what type of governing system they want – be it monarchy, presidency, principality or any other form? So, things are clear: they should first pay attention to their own nations and then answer your question.
Interviewer: In this quagmire, why do Britain and France delegate leadership to Saudi Arabia and Qatar? What do they hope to achieve?
President Assad: I also cannot answer on behalf of Britain or France, but I can give you the general impression here. I believe that France and Britain have an issue with the ‘annoying’ Syrian role in the region – as they see it. These countries, like the United States, are looking for puppets and dummies to do their bidding and serve their interests without question. We have consistently rejected this; we will always be independent and free. It seems as though France and Britain have not forgotten their colonial history and persist in attempting to manipulate the region albeit through proxies. Indeed, Britain and France can direct Saudi Arabia and Qatar on what they should do, but we must also not forget that
t he policies and economies of France and Britain are also dependent on petrodollars.
What happened in Syria was an opportunity for all these countries to get rid of Syria –this insubordinate state, and replace the president with a “yes man.” This will never happen neither now nor in the future.
Interviewer: The European Union has not renewed the arms embargo imposed on Syria and yet it has not approved arming the opposition. What is your assessment of this step?
President Assad: Clearly there is a split within the European Union on this issue. I cannot state that the EU is supportive of the Syrian government; there are countries, especially Britain and France, who are particularly hostile to Syria. On the other hand, there are countries – Germany in particular, which are raising logical questions about the future consequences of arming the terrorists. Well firstly, that would perpetuate the destruction in Syria, forcing the Syrian people to pay an even heavier price. Secondly, by supplying arms, they are effectively arming terrorists, and the Europeans are well informed that these are terrorists groups. Some are repeating the American rhetoric of “good fighters and bad fighters,” exactly as they did a few years ago with the “good Taliban and bad Taliban, good Al-Qaeda and bad Al-Qaeda.” Today there is a new term of “good terrorists and bad terrorists” being promoted. Is this logical?
Interviewer: Mr President, what is your vision for Syria in the next five years?
President Assad: I reiterate that our biggest challenge is extremism. If we can fight it, with better education, new ideas and culture, then we can move towards a healthy democratic state. Democracy, as we see it in Syria, is not an objective in itself, but rather a means to an end – to stability and to prosperity. Legislations and constitutions are also only tools, necessary tools to develop and advance societies. However, for democracy to thrive, it needs to become a way of life – a part of our culture, and this cannot happen when so many social taboos are imposed by extremist ideologies.
In addition to this, there is of course the reconstruction process, reinvigorating our national industries and restoring and opening up our economy. We will continue to be open in Syria, continue to learn and benefit from the lessons of this crisis. One of these lessons is that ignorance is the worst enemy of societies and forms the basis for extremism; we hope that Europe has also learned from these lessons.
Interviewer: Mr President, thank you very much. I have been greatly influenced by your personality and your vision; I hope Europe and the West will benefit from this interview and look at you and your country differently.
President Assad: Thank you very much and welcome again to Syria.