In a rare interview with Russian media outlets, RT among them, Syrian leader Bashar Assad spoke about global and domestic terrorism threats, the need for a united front against jihadism, Western propaganda about the refugee crisis and ways to bring peace to his war-torn nation.
Question 1: Mr. President, thank you from the Russian media, from RT, from Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti, and NTV channel, for giving us all the opportunity to talk to you during this very critical phase of the crisis in Syria, where there are many questions that need to be addressed on where exactly the political process to achieve peace in Syria is heading, what’s the latest developments on the fight against ISIL, and the status of the Russian and Syrian partnership, and of course the enormous exodus of Syrian refugees that has been dominating headlines in Europe.
Now, the crisis in Syria is entering its fifth year. You have defied all predictions by Western leaders that you would be ousted imminently, and continue to serve today as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Now, there has been a lot of speculation recently caused by reports that officials from your government met with officials from your adversary Saudi Arabia that caused speculation that the political process in Syria has entered a new phase, but then statements from Saudi Arabia that continue to insist on your departure suggest that in fact very little has changed despite the grave threat that groups like ISIL pose far beyond Syria’s borders.
So, what is your position on the political process? How do you feel about power sharing and working with those groups in the opposition that continue to say publically that there can be no political solution in Syria unless that includes your immediate departure? Have they sent you any signal that they are willing to team up with you and your government? In addition to that, since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, many of those groups were calling to you to carry out reforms and political change. But is such change even possible now under the current circumstances with the war and the ongoing spread of terror in Syria?
President Assad: Let me first divide this question. It’s a multi question in one question. The first part regarding the political process, since the beginning of the crisis we adopted the dialogue approach, and there were many rounds of dialogue between Syrians in Syria, in Moscow, and in Geneva. Actually, the only step that has been made or achieved was in Moscow 2, not in Geneva, not in Moscow 1, and actually it’s a partial step, it’s not a full step, and that’s natural because it’s a big crisis. You cannot achieve solutions in a few hours or a few days. It’s a step forward, and we are waiting for Moscow 3. I think we need to continue the dialogue between the Syrian entities, political entities or political currents, in parallel with fighting terrorism in order to achieve or reach a consensus about the future of Syria. So, that’s what we have to continue.
If I jump to the last part, because it’s related to this one, is it possible to achieve anything taking into consideration the prevalence of terrorism in Syria and in Iraq and in the region in general? We have to continue dialogue in order to reach the consensus as I said, but if you want to implement anything real, it’s impossible to do anything while you have people being killed, bloodletting hasn’t stopped, people feel insecure. Let’s say we sit together as Syrian political parties or powers and achieve a consensus regarding something in politics, in economy, in education, in health, in everything. How can we implement it if the priority of every single Syrian citizen is to be secure? So, we can achieve consensus, but we cannot implement unless we defeat the terrorism in Syria. We have to defeat terrorism, not only ISIS.
I’m talking about terrorism, because you have many organizations, mainly ISIS and al-Nusra that were announced as terrorist groups by the Security Council. So, this is regarding the political process. Sharing power, of course we already shared it with some part of the opposition that accepted to share it with us. A few years ago they joined the government. Although sharing power is related to the constitution, to the elections, mainly parliamentary elections, and of course representation of the Syrian people by those powers. But in spite of that, because of the crisis, we said let’s share it now, let’s do something, a step forward, no matter how effective.
Regarding the refugee crisis, I will say now that Western dealing in the Western propaganda recently, mainly during the last week, regardless of the accusation that those refugees are fleeing the Syrian government, but they call it regime, of course. Actually, it’s like the West now is crying for the refugees with one eye and aiming at them with a machine gun with the second one, because actually those refugees left Syria because of the terrorism, mainly because of the terrorists and because of the killing, and second because of the results of terrorism. When you have terrorism, and you have the destruction of the infrastructure, you won’t have the basic needs of living, so many people leave because of the terrorism and because they want to earn their living somewhere in this world.
So, the West is crying for them, and the West is supporting terrorists since the beginning of the crisis when it said that this was a peaceful uprising, when they said later it’s moderate opposition, and now they say there is terrorism like al-Nusra and ISIS, but because of the Syrian state or the Syrian regime or the Syrian president. So, as long as they follow this propaganda, they will have more refugees. So, it’s not about that Europe didn’t accept them or embrace them as refugees, it’s about not dealing with the cause. If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists. That’s what we think regarding the crisis. This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.
Question 2: Mr. President, you touched on the subject of the internal Syrian opposition in your first answer; nevertheless, I would like to go back to that because it’s very important for Russia. What should the internal opposition do in order to cooperate and coordinate with Syrian authorities to support them in battle… which is what they say they intend to do? How do you see the prospects for the Moscow-3 and Geneva-3 conferences? Will they be useful to Syria in the current situation?
President Assad: As you know, we are at war with terrorism, and this terrorism is supported by foreign powers. It means that we are in a state of complete war. I believe that any society and any patriotic individuals, and any parties which truly belong to the people should unite when there is a war against an enemy; whether that enemy is in the form of domestic terrorism or foreign terrorism. If we ask any Syrian today about what they want, the first thing they would say is: we want security and safety for every person and every family.
So we, as political forces, whether inside or outside the government, should unite around what the Syrian people want. That means we should first unite against terrorism. That is logical and self-evident. That’s why I say that we have to unite now as political forces, or government, or as armed groups which fought against the government, in order to fight terrorism. This has actually happened.
There are forces fighting terrorism now alongside the Syrian state, which had previously fought against the Syrian state. We have made progress in this regard, but I would like to take this opportunity to call on all forces to unite against terrorism, because it is the way to achieve the political objectives which we, as Syrians, want through dialogue and political action.
Intervention: Concerning the Moscow-3 and Geneva-3 conferences; in your opinion, are there good prospects for them?
President Assad: The importance of Moscow-3 lies in the fact that it paves the way to Geneva-3, because the international sponsorship in Geneva was not neutral, while the Russian sponsorship is. It is not biased, and is based on international law and Security Council resolutions. Second, there are substantial differences around the ‘transitional body’ item in Geneva. Moscow-3 is required to solve these problems between the different Syrian parties; and when we reach Geneva-3, it is ensured that there is a Syrian consensus which would enable it to succeed. We believe that it is difficult for Geneva-3 to succeed unless Moscow-3 does. That’s why we support holding this round of negotiations in Moscow after preparations for the success of this round have been completed, particularly by the Russian officials.
Question 3: I would like to continue with the issue of international cooperation in order to solve the Syrian crisis. It’s clear that Iran, since solving the nuclear issue, will play a more active role in regional affairs. How would you evaluate recent Iranian initiatives on reaching a settlement for the situation in Syria? And, in general, what is the importance of Tehran’s support for you? Is there military support? And, if so, what form does it take?
President Assad: At present, there is no Iranian initiative. There are ideas or principles for an Iranian initiative based primarily on Syria’s sovereignty, the decisions of the Syrian people and on fighting terrorism. The relationship between Syria and Iran is an old one. It is over three-and-a-half decades old. There is an alliance based on a great degree of trust. That’s why we believe that the Iranian role is important. Iran supports Syria and the Syrian people. It stands with the Syrian state politically, economically and militarily. When we say militarily, it doesn’t mean – as claimed by some in the Western media – that Iran has sent an army or armed forces to Syria. That is not true. It sends us military equipment, and of course there is an exchange of military experts between Syria and Iran. This has always been the case, and it is natural for this cooperation to grow between the two countries in a state of war. Yes, Iranian support has been essential to support Syria in its steadfastness in this difficult and ferocious war.
Question 14: Mr. President, there is a huge wave of refugees, largely from Syria, going to Europe. Some say these people are practically lost to Syria. They are deeply unhappy with the Syrian authorities because they haven’t been able to protect them and they’ve had to leave their homes. How do you view those people? Do you see them as part of the Syrian electorate in the future? Do you expect them to return? And the second question has to do with the European sense of guilt about the displacement happening now. Do you think that Europe should feel guilty?
President Assad: Any person who leaves Syria constitutes a loss to the homeland, to be sure, regardless of the position or capabilities of that person. This, of course, does not include terrorists. It includes all citizens in general with the exception of terrorists. So, yes, there is a great loss as a result of emigration. You raised a question on elections. Last year, we had a presidential election in Syria, and there were many refugees in different countries, particularly in Lebanon. According to Western propaganda, they had fled the state, the oppression of the state and the killing of the state, and they are supposed to be enemies of the state. But the surprise for Westerners was that most of them voted for the president who is supposed to be killing them. That was a great blow to Western propaganda. Of course, voting has certain conditions. There should be an embassy, and to have the custodianship of the Syrian state in the voting process. That depends on relations between the states. Many countries have severed relations with Syria and closed Syrian embassies, and consequently Syrian citizens cannot vote in those countries. They have to go to other countries where ballot boxes are installed, and that did happen last year.
As for Europe, of course it’s guilty. Today, Europe is trying to say that Europe feels guilty because it hasn’t given money or hasn’t allowed these people to immigrate legally, and that’s why they came across the sea and drowned. We are sad for every innocent victim, but is the victim who drowns in the sea dearer to us than the victim killed in Syria? Are they dearer than innocent people whose heads are cut off by terrorists? Can you feel sad for a child’s death in the sea and not for thousands of children who have been killed by the terrorists in Syria? And also for men, women, and the elderly? These European double standards are no longer acceptable. They have been flagrantly exposed. It doesn’t make sense to feel sad for the death of certain people and not for deaths of others. The principles are the same. So Europe is responsible because it supported terrorism, as I said a short while ago, and is still supporting terrorism and providing cover for them. It still calls them ‘moderate’ and categorizes them into groups, even though all these groups in Syria are extremists.
Question 15: If you don’t mind, I would like to go back to the question about Syria’s political future. Mr. President, your opponents, whether fighting against the authorities with weapons or your political opponents, still insist that one of the most-important conditions for peace is your departure from political life and as president. What do you think about that – as president and as a Syrian citizen? Are you theoretically prepared for that if you feel it’s necessary?
President Assad: In addition to what you say, Western propaganda has, from the very beginning, been about the cause of the problem being the president. Why? Because they want to portray the whole problem in Syria lies in one individual; and consequently the natural reaction for many people is that, if the problem lies in one individual, that individual should not be more important than the entire homeland. So let that individual go and things will be alright. That’s how they oversimplify things in the West. What’s happening in Syria, in this regard, is similar to what happened in your case. Notice what happened in the Western media since the coup in Ukraine. What happened? President Putin was transformed from a friend of the West to a foe and, yet again, he was characterized as a tsar. He is portrayed as a dictator suppressing opposition in Russia, and that he came to power through undemocratic means, despite the fact that he was elected in democratic elections, and the West itself acknowledged that the elections were democratic. Now, it is no longer democratic. This is Western propaganda. They say that if the president went things will get better. What does that mean, practically? For the West, it means that as long as you are there, we will continue to support terrorism, because the Western principle followed now in Syria and Russia and other countries is changing presidents, changing states, or what they call bringing regimes down. Why? Because they do not accept partners and do not accept independent states. What is their problem with Russia? What is their problem with Syria? What is their problem with Iran? They are all independent countries. They want a certain individual to go and be replaced by someone who acts in their interests and not in the interest of his country. For us, the president comes through the people and through elections and, if he goes, he goes through the people. He doesn’t go as a result of an American decision, a Security Council decision, the Geneva conference or the Geneva communiqué. If the people want him to stay, he should stay; and if the people reject him, he should leave immediately. This is the principle according to which I look at this issue.
Question 16: Military operations have been ongoing for more than four years. It’s likely that you analyze things and review matters often. In your opinion, was there a crucial juncture when you realized war was unavoidable? And who initiated that war machinery? The influence of Washington or your Middle East neighbours? Or were there mistakes on your part? Are there things you regret? And if you had the opportunity to go back, would you change them?
President Assad: In every state, there are mistakes, and mistakes might be made every day, but these mistakes do not constitute a crucial juncture because they are always there. So what is it that makes these mistakes suddenly lead to the situation we are living in Syria today? It doesn’t make sense. You might be surprised if I tell that the crucial juncture in what happened in Syria is something that many people wouldn’t even think of. It was the Iraq war in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. We were strongly opposed to that invasion, because we knew that things were moving in the direction of dividing societies and creating unrest. And we are Iraq’s neighbours. At that time, we saw that the war would turn Iraq into a sectarian country; into a society divided against itself. To the west of Syria there is another sectarian country – Lebanon. We are in the middle. We knew well that we would be affected. Consequently, the beginning of the Syrian crisis, or what happened in the beginning, was the natural result of that war and the sectarian situation in Iraq, part of which moved to Syria, and it was easy for them to incite some Syrian groups on sectarian grounds.
The second point, which might be less crucial, is that when the West adopted terrorism officially in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and called terrorists at that time ‘freedom fighters’, and then in 2006 when Islamic State appeared in Iraq under American sponsorship and they didn’t fight it. All these things together created the conditions for the unrest with Western support and Gulf money, particularly form Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and with Turkish logistic support, particularly since President Erdogan belongs intellectually to the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, he believes that, if the situation changed in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, it means the creation of a new sultanate; not an Ottoman sultanate this time, but a sultanate for the Brotherhood extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and ruled by Erdogan. All these factors together brought things to what we have today. Once again, I say that there were mistakes, and mistakes always create gaps and weak points, but they are not sufficient to cause that alone, and they do not justify what happened. And if these gaps and weak points are the cause, why didn’t they lead to revolutions in the Gulf states – particularly in Saudi Arabia which doesn’t know anything about democracy? The answer is self-evident, I believe.
Mr. President, thank you for giving us the time and for your detailed answers to our questions. We know that in September you have your golden jubilee, your 50th birthday. Probably the best wishes in the current circumstances would be the return of peace and safety to your country as soon as possible. Thank you.
Syria ‘in a state of complete war’ with terrorism – Assad (FULL INTERVIEW)