Full text of Bashar Al-Assad's interview with Kuwait daily 'Al-Anbaa'

  Conducted by 'Al Anbaa' Editor in Chief Mrs. Bibi Al-Marzuk

  May 26, 2003

  Interviewer: Mr. President, for us Syria's position on the liberation war of Iraq wasn't different from its previous position, but what happened in the liberation of Iraq is something that Kuwait has nothing to do with. There were things imposed on us, and it was important for us to get rid of Saddam. As you, in Syria have suffered from him, we too have suffered more; so why is this Syrian position?

 

President Al-Assad: Let's consider the current Syrian position. It is very important to compare it with the Syrian position during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. There is an aspect that has to do with principles and another aspect that has to do with interests; which is natural as countries deal with each other through principles and interests. In principle, our public position as Arab countries has always been that we are against any kind of occupation. Even in the recent meeting of the countries neighboring Iraq that was held in Riyadh, the statement made was for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq in addition to preserving its unity and territorial integrity. The other point is that when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq we believed that it was going to lead the entire region into turbulence that would persist for a long time. Therefore, our position today, regardless of Saddam, is that the occupation of Iraq is unacceptable. We can't say that Iraq is Saddam. There is a problem. We Syrians in particular no longer talk about Saddam and the regime because we already demonstrated credibility on this subject in the past. I mean that the entire Arab world knows the Syrian-Iraqi disagreement; so there is no need to say that we were against Saddam. We differed with him for a very long time. Saddam's support for turbulences that occurred at a certain stage in Syria is very well known. But we always wanted to exceed this to the future. So, we all agreed, for example, that we wanted this regime and this President to go, but what about Iraq? We didn't discuss the issue of Iraq. As a matter of principle, we stood against the occupation of Iraq as we would stand against the occupation of any Arab country. Moreover, and regardless of being an Arab country, we are a neighboring country of Iraq and the war will have direct effects on us, as well as on all the other countries neighboring Iraq. So, taking the Syrian interest into consideration, it is only natural for us to be against the war whose effects we are witnessing now. The third point is that targeting Syria has preceded the war, and this is why we knew that there will be threats after the war. When we looked at the situation before the war we saw the future that we are living today. So it is logical for us to be against the war. We distinguished between two things: First, the Syrian position on the regime and the Syrian position on Iraq; and this should be always clear with regard to the Syrian position and the position of all Arab countries. Second, our position on Iraq and our position on Kuwait; and this is one of the points that were raised recently. In this regard, I think that Kuwait has to negate this before Syria does. There is no connection whatsoever between being against the war and being against Kuwait, that is the former does not imply the latter. To the contrary, the subject is completely different. The two issues are separate. We might differ with Kuwait, as we might differ with any Arab country, on a certain subject and might agree on another, but this has nothing to do with our position with regard to Iraq.

 Interviewer: The visit of Skeikh Sabah Al Ahmad was on the basis that the Syrian position was not against Kuwait, and when Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad gives a statement that any threat to Syria is a threat to Kuwait, this is a clear Kuwaiti position, especially when others say that Kuwait has no sovereignty. We think that this is a position that others have never expressed while the Americans are on our land. What is your point of view with regard to this subject?

 President Al-Assad: Not all that is said is an official position; this is a point that I want to stress. If we want to speak about sovereignty, it is relative in this world, especially in the absence of international balance. In fact, even the sovereignty of big countries is relative ذ we are all aware of this international situation. So speaking about sovereignty is relative. With regard to the visit of Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad, it was important in terms of timing and content. Both before and during the visit, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad expressed a very clear Kuwaiti official position. He rejected the threats against Syria and said that Syria and Kuwait are two Arab countries after all. We are Arabs, and we are human beings, and sometimes in one household a man might differ with his brother over some household issue. This doesn't mean that we should pay compliments to each other when we have a clear point of view on a certain subject. Within this frame, came the visit of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad, and his position was quite clear. Today there is a new situation in the region. There are stages at which we might differ but we have soon to look for points of mutual interest. Otherwise, if we differ all the time what will the result be? It won't be positive!

  Interviewer: So, we agree on getting rid of Saddam but differ about the methodology?

 President Al-Assad: We don't talk a lot on this subject because Syria has credibility in it and we will not defend ourselves by saying we are against Saddam. But we believe that all Arab countries know the Syrian position towards Saddam and the regime, and the proof is that we didn't open an embassy in Baghdad. Things are clear. There were economic relations, and we were clear with our people and with others about the nature of these relations, especially with our Kuwaiti brothers who visited Syria several times and said they were surprised by these relations. We told them that our position with regard to the invasion of Kuwait remained the same. It has not changed. If we feel now that there is even a minor threat to Kuwait by Iraq, things will go back to what they were in 1990. We will end the relation with the Iraqi regime and go back to defending Kuwait. We said that this is a definite and an old position. Our position from Saddam is old and we have not changed. Restarting the relations doesn't mean that we have changed, because we have always said that we are with the Iraqi people. If you go back to all previous speeches and articles, you will find that we have never shown in any political position that we are with the regime in Iraq. We have always said in all issues in general, and as a matter of a general principle, that we are not committed to a person, but rather to a case.

 Interviewer: The period before and during the liberation of Iraq was a period of high tension, and as Your Excellency have mentioned, this was clear in official positions whether in the Kuwaiti press or among parliamentarians. But how do we save the Iraqi people? We didn't have an alternative or any other choice! Today Your Excellency read the newspapers and reports and see the mass graves that are there. But for us now, what's after Iraq? What's after Saddam? How do you see things?

 President Al-Assad: We can't specify until we know what the Iraqi people want. This is crucial. Thinking about the issue in isolation of the Iraqi people remains imperfect and insufficient. No matter how much love we claim to have for Iraq, the Iraqi people and the interests of the Iraqi people, our thinking will remain deficient. I think that things inside Iraq have not taken a materialized shape yet, but they are on their way to assuming one. It is natural, following such an isolationist and oppressive regime, that there will vacuum in the political and social spheres, as well as in all other spheres. I believe that the Iraqi people are now looking for the elements that form their identity. In the first place They are Arab and Moslem. This matter is clear for the Iraqi people, and needs no further exploration. But there are other detailed elements that are in the process of taking shape now, and we see them in the form of political parties, political discourse, and demonstrations. These elements are now in the process of shaping a unified Iraqi position, until such final form materializes for the Iraqi people, and of which emerges a united and clear political discourse, especially one that is addressed to the Arab countries. When there is political discourse that is addressed to us, we can say how we are going to move or how we see things clearly. But naturally there are bases to which we have to relay: the territorial integrity of Iraq, the withdrawal of foreign and occupying forces as soon as possible --and this is a position that we both declared in the meeting of the neighboring countries of Iraq-- the freedom of the Iraqi people in choosing their future, the money and wealth of Iraq is for the Iraqi peopleةetc. These are principles that we should always put as basis for any kind of movement. If we agree on these principles, then there is no problem. But what kind of government will there be, and what is the basis on which such government will rely? It is Arabism and Islam. Is there any other basis? There isn't any other social basis.

 Interviewer: Mr. President, for us the vacuum that exists in Iraq is not only dangerous, but it is more dangerous than any other situation. It is a question of time for the Americans; but for us it is more dangerous. I mean the regional situation for Kuwait. And Your Excellency know very well that the distance between Kuwait and Basra takes only 45 minutes by car. We are therefore the most vulnerable to instability. During the visit of President Khatami who met you in Damascus, did you discuss the internal situation of Iraq? 

President Al-Assad: Of course, this was a main subject. What you are saying is very accurate. Kuwait is affected by anything that takes place in Iraq, and this is something we used to say to our Kuwaiti brothers. We used to tell them that the first country that is affected by what is going on in Iraq is Kuwait, especially that it is a small country and that it was invaded before. This imposes responsibilities on Kuwait in the future with regard to taking care of the issue of Iraq. We, as neighboring countries, are affected directly also whether we are a small or a big country. Iran, Turkey, Syria, in addition to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all of us see now that we are affected by changes that happen in Iraq in a direct and not in an indirect way. In order to guarantee that the losses and negative effects are minimum, first of all we shouldn't interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq because any interference in the domestic affairs of any country will have its negative consequences on the interfering country, this is unless the Iraqi people want us to interfere for their interest. That is why I am saying that until now nothing has materialized. At the moment, things are still in the stage of discussion and we can only say that we are at an early stage of occupation.

 Interviewer: Mr. President, do you feel comfortable with the way the neighboring courtiers of Iraq are dealing with the Iraqi issue now?

 President Al-Assad: The only dealing that I have seen until now is the meeting that took place in Riyadh, because it expresses the political position of the neighboring countries of Iraq. Now there are intensive and direct dialogues especially between Syria, Turkey and Iran, and of course there are dialogues with other Arab countries. This is common sense. However, the Iraqi issue has enhanced the dialogue between neighboring countries, i.e. Syria, Turkey and Iran, and there were meetings between political and security officials, and what we have heard from these countries is the same position that I have talked about a while ago, i.e. none-interference with the domestic affairs of Iraq and exerting every possible effort so that no partition takes place in Iraq. Today the most important issue for us is the unity of Iraq. We are concerned about any threat to the unity of Iraq. I met with several officials, such as President Khatami or the Turkish Foreign Minister and some other Arab officials, among whom is of course Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad; and the first thing we stressed and underlined throughout our discussions with them is to guarantee the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.

 Interviewer: How do you see the viewpoint of these countries with regard to the Kurdish issue or Kurdish people in particular?

 President Al-Assad: This immediately leads us to the subject of the territorial integrity of Iraq, and this is what we first raised with the Kurds. Years and decades ago, when the Kurdish issue was raised from the point of view of division, whether in press or in some statements that we used to hear, we used to say this. There is a direct and ongoing dialogue and a close relation between us and the Kurdish factions; I refer here to the two major parties, and their continuous and clear statements mean that they can only be part of a united Iraq. Of course they have requests within the Iraqi situation. This needs negotiations with any future Iraqi government.

 Interviewer: Are there discussions with neighboring countries about the Kurdish issue?

 President Al-Assad: We are coordinating with our Kurdish brothers, and do not interfere with their affairs, within the framework of unity. We don't give up on this issue. They agree with us and their statements are clear. Iraq now is in a state of vacuum and turbulence and we can't say that the current shape is the Iraqi one. This shape is rejected by all the people of Iraq. All will pay the price in Iraq if things take the wrong shape, and things shouldn't be shaped except within the idea of the unity of Iraq. Any other shape that takes the form of partition is completely rejected. So we agree with neighboring countries to move immediately and consider any issue that has to do with Iraqi territorial integrity a crisis that has its effects on the entire region.

 Interviewer: Concerning the issue of disorder and chaos in Iraq, it does not only take place in Ira, but it is rather an international issue ة. whether it was the vacuum of the other pole or chaos (terrorism). Talk about a new Europe and old Europe has started. How do you see the situation for Europe in particular concerning the issue of the Middle East?

 President Al-Assad: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been one super power in the world, yet we have always been calling for a European role. For us small countries, the more powers on which we could depend in any issue, the better for us. In the proposals that were presented to us, especially on the subject of peace which is our main issue, we have always asked the party that came up with the proposal whether they are coordinating with America or not? We ask for a role for the European Union but not to replace the role of the United States, rather it is a coordinating role between the two. Whether in peace or any other issue, I think that other big countries cannot move effectively without coordination with the United States. The importance of these roles is that there are certain aspects that cannot be performed solely by the United States, and this may be related to the cultural dimension. May be because of the domestic elections circumstances, and may be because of the role of the Zionist lobby, some issues cannot be given the consideration they deserve by the United States. The European Union, Russia, China and Japan might play a helpful role. What happened after the war is that there was a political map on the level of the world. The United Nations is there, the European Union is there and different powers are there. All these powers have been canceled from this political map. I mean that the United Nations is no longer active, at least politically, and the European Union was weakened to a large extent. Other powers that may be active in the world have become out of the map. I agree with you that there is now a vacuum. At the same time they do not know how to manage Iraq, which is a comparatively small country in front of such big powers. There is vacuum in Iraq, and there is vacuum in the world, and there is vacuum in the region, because powers are not allowed to interfere, no matter whether or not they wanted to, and whether or not the Iraqi people wanted them to. We will keep on saying that we want the United Nations to be active and we want the European Union to be active, but this is what the situation is like now.

 Interviewer: Mr. President. The visit of Colin Powell is important and it has an actual effect on future relationships. Why don't you go to America directly?

 President Al-Assad: We used this logic that you are raising now in 1974, not after the peace process. In the year 1974 President Nixon came to Syria, before which visit relations between Syria and the Unites States had been severed. The American embassy was opened while Nixon was there. The Arab position was good after the October war. There was Arab solidarity then, and the Soviet Union was there and there was good support. President Hafez Al-Al-Assad suggested to proposed to President Nixon having good relations between Syria and the United States. Hence, this proposal is old. In all our meetings with American officials we raise all topics beginning with economy to politics to culture and dialogue. We had dialogues with them. We have always said to them that our doors are open to you, but your doors are not open to us.

 Interviewer: Why?

 President Al-Assad: The problem between United States and ourselves is only the Israeli issue. America is satisfied with Syria and the Arab countries when Israel is satisfied with them. As for bilateral issues, there is no problem. They always promise but do not commit to their promises because Israel is strong in the United States. That is the problem between Syria and America. We said to them that America is a super power that has interests all over the world, which is natural, but we as a country have interests in our region too. It is only natural that such interests would be taken into consideration. That is how healthy relations between countries are. We cannot accept that difference between us should be determined by Israeli interests; we cannot accept this neither on an emotional level nor on an intellectual level, neither on interests level nor on principles level --or at least on interests level, because interests are contradictory in this case. Israel is a country that occupies our territories, and Syria is required to take Israeli interests into consideration; what kind of logic is this? We say that America is the influential power, and that relation with it should be direct. We do not say there should be intermediaries. But, if the intermediary between us is the Israeli relation, then we refuse that. That is the only disagreement.

 Interviewer: Mr. President there was a beginning of a direct peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, then it stopped. Other things also appeared, and now the road map, Abu Mazen's government, the meeting of Abu Mazen and his going to Jerusalem. Is that in isolation from Syria or there is coordination with Syria?

 President Al-Assad: With regard to the Palestinian issue and since Oslo, there has been no coordination. Coordination has stopped since 1993, and there seem to be no desire in coordination on the part of some different members in the authority. In origin, we do not interfere with internal Palestinian issues. Forming a government is an internal issue that we do not interfere with and it does not need coordination. Here, I am rather talking about the issue of peace, and the peace negotiations, and the coordination between the two tracks in the general sense.

 Interviewer: With regard to the road map, is there anything new for Syria?

 President Al-Assad: of course the road map is put on the basis of its three stages. Syria and Lebanon were put in the third stage. First, we do not know what is the relation of Syria and Lebanon to the road map. The road map addresses the Palestinian track. Second, we do not know what is the relation of Syria and Lebanon to the stages that were put. On what basis were Syria and Lebanon put in the third stage? If there is coordination between tracks, they should all start at the same time. Each track has its particularity. The road map addresses the Palestinians. Syria and Lebanon are mentioned on the side in it. We said that what matters for us is going back to basis of Madrid and the resolutions 242 and 338 and this basis is still active. While talking to the Americans and the Europeans, they agree on this, they are not against it. They did not cancel Madrid and did not withdraw on all the guarantees that were presented --- of which non was implemented. Nevertheless, they still say that this is right, that Syria is right, and that they agree with this approach.

 Interviewer: We go now to a more serious topic, I think not only peace is an important issue, but also the rarefaction of the Arab position, what happened in Riyadh, and later what happened in Morocco is a test for the two countries. Mr. President, do you think there is a message? The second point, his majesty king Fahed has talked in his parliament speech about making a new method or a new plan, what is your opinion?

 President Al-Assad: It was said that there is a message if there was a link between what happened in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, even though both attacks may be similar in form, the planning might be the same. Until now there is no clear information, but if there was a message, but from whom did it come? It is said from Ibn Laden! I can't believe that Ibn Laden is the person who can outmatch the whole world! All the world is against Ibn Laden and all the developed countries, on top of which is the US, are against him. Ibn Laden is unable to speak on the phone nor can he use the Internet, yet he is able to communicate through the four corners of the world. Such argument is neither logical nor objective. How can he plan in such way and how can he move now?! But as for Al-Qaida, is there really a structure called Al-Qaida? It existed in Afghanistan, but does it still existing now? In everything we say Al-Qaida. The matter is more dangerous than the issue of Ibn Laden or of Al-Qaida; there is an intellectual current, the case is one of a state of mind, it is no longer an issue of organizations. When nine or ten persons or groups of people decide to go to commit suicide in such a way, then the issue is not one of organization. This is an intellectual current which is moving in this direction. So, whether there is Al-Qaida or a "message," what is important is that there is an intellectual current. So, when two acts happen; one in the east of the Arab world and another in the west of the Arab world, having the same form and in two very close times, this means that there is one intellectual current and groups of different nationalities, Arab and non-Arab, which are living in different countries, but they belong to one intellectual current. They are coordinating with each other through this current and they are living within communities. In other words, this intellectual current is existing among societies and is carrying out these actions. Of course when we talk about an intellectual current you have to go back to the background on which it is based; a specific social basis. This current can not live without a certain social basis which rely on a certain intellectual level and certain issues in order to convince people and to enhance its existence. Therefore, handling this issue should be dealt with on a social and not a security basis, but it might be based on security basis in the short-run of course. Now, that problem has existed, it should be handled on security basis, but the security handling is a temporary one. The genuine handling aiming at preventive measures for the future is a social handling regardless of what is being discussed in the kingdom now. This is an internal issue which I can't evaluate. Is it linked to this issue or to the issue of Iraq? I can't exactly evaluate it as a general principle. When we talk about any reform in any country, we do not link the reform to an imminent crisis. We link the reform to the country's need of reform because when reform is only a reaction to a certain crisis, the reform will be passive not active and this is very serious. We should implement an active reform stemming from our convictions, our desires and interests as a society, rather than out of a crisis we face which makes us feel a need for reform, because this would mean that we did not feel the need for reform before the crisis, and this is a problem. Therefore, we should always have a vision for reform and this is a continuous need. I say that reform will be very late if we want to reform only because of the crisis. What we should do is to reform before the crisis, not after the crisis.

 Interviewer: Your Excellency entered the process of carrying out reform before assuming power?

 President Al-Assad: Yes. That is correct, President Hafez Al -Al-Assad had started the process of reform on different stages and in each time reform was in a certain field.

 Interviewer: You were in charge of specific files - we love you and we wish you all success - but why did the process become slower? Is it because you had more time before assuming the presidency and you could move more freely?

 President Al-Assad: No. This is not the case. Before I assumed office I was an individual, and as an individual I can be a free democrat, I can deal with myself and I can express my ideas. When I assumed office I expressed these ideas as an individual and as a President. An official should deal with all the components that are existed in his country and not only his own ideas. If these components were not identical with his ideas, the process will fail. It is true that there is tardiness, but there are reasons for this. In any process that we want to carry out, particularly at the national and social levels, we need an intellectual basis. There should be a connection between the political proposal and the social structure in society. Any work should be based on the social structure. Of course, we are like any society which combines various trends. We have somebody who is pushing the process in the right direction, there is somebody who is pushing it in the wrong direction and somebody who is pulling it back. These matters affect negatively and positively. They either push the process or retard it, this is the normal situation. But, this does not mean that I have changed, and it does not mean that I'm not working to achieve what I have said and what I'm thinking of and what expresses my character as an individual. Every human being hopes or thinks that his ideas are the right ones, and he hopes to implement them from the position of responsibility he acquires, but things are not that easy.

 Interviewer: Let us, Mr. President, talk about the pressure being exerted on Syria and about the internal situation. Opportunities come and even negative ones can be changed into positive ones, can you, throughout this pressure, give an average of the right of Syria and your vision regarding Syria and the Arab world towards the outside? I mean instead of being subjected to pressure, you can use it. Mr. President, we can't separate economy from politics and the world is much inter linked than before. Today, I can't see the pressures that are exerted on Syria as only negative rather this negativity can be changed into positivity and building a bridge with outside world not only America?

 President Al-Assad: Generally speaking, I think that the first thing which any country thinks of is to enhance its relations with others. First of all, with neighbors. Second, with others whether they were of the same nationality or other nationalities. But small countries are in much need for this thing and in the current international reality they need much more. Upon assuming my office, the first thing was that I visited all Arab countries and some of the European countries for this purpose. Now regarding the recent threats, the ones who supported us were the foreign countries in addition to Arab countries. They clearly and decisively supported us; by deeds not only by words, this is one aspect of the relations. The other one, as I said, is that relations are the bridge. I'm always saying to the Europeans: You are a bridge. There is always a cultural problem. Who can help us in this issue? It is Europe. Because Europe had a presence in our region, has various relations with its peoples and Europe knows them very well, in particular France and Britain with regard to us. Europe is generally close to our region and it is in its interests to keep in touch with us. The Arab and Islamic migrations and the Arab communities that exist in Europe created familiarity. This familiarity by itself is a bridge, but this bridge will not be active if we, as Arabs, did not seek to activate it. Therefore, this bridge is a need for the Europeans and for the Arabs. In other words, we should understand it in order to benefit from it.

 Interviewer: From your point of view Mr. President, how do you see this bridge, how do you utilize it for the interest of Syria and the Arabs? How do you see these issues as Bashar Al-Al-Assad the man of strategy? I mean that we, nowadays, do not have investments, do not have mutual interests, do not have money, therefore the economic openness in Syria should be well studied. When we, Kuwaitis, invest in Syria we should be more engaged in it?

 President Al-Assad: First, before discussing this aspect, I would like to say that even between Arabs there should be economic relations and interests. It is not enough to talk about emotions, blood copula and ideologies. Interests are a fundamental part. Principally speaking, I think that ideology has been shaped during history throughout interests and not the opposite. What brings people together in order to create nationalism? Interests are a basic factor. Our problem, as Arabs, is that we were in certain stage talking only emotionally, and until now some of us are still talking only emotionally. The issue of economic relations is a very important one and it strongly strengthens the emotional aspect. In this regard, we should also create interests with the western countries. I totally agree with you. I'm not saying that this is my only personal point of view, I always hear this point of view. I think it is a general point of view which I hear in Syria and I think that most of the Arab countries adopt such logic. But how can we move, how can we create these interests? We are in need for an investment climate, in need for improving our image abroad. There is a distortion of this image. Investments are linked to the image and it is also linked to a psychological aspect for the foreigner citizen who feels that there are high barriers between us and their countries or just small barriers or even no barriers at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewer: Speaking in the parliament about economy, you said that there are laws which should be rushed, why is that?

 President Al-Assad: Actually, we have a counter problem. We speedily issued laws, but the problem now is in implementing these laws. We issued many laws and they express our desire in development, but because they were too many, gaps are unavoidable, I also said this in parliament. I said that it does not mean that everything which was issued is perfect. But, when we are in a hurry regarding reformation ذ it was something natural ذsome gaps could not be avoided. Therefore, we have now two issues: First, to avoid the gaps which appeared in the previous laws. Second, to implement the laws which were not implemented and this is the biggest problem. The complaint of the Syrian citizen is: why the laws are not implemented? In addition new laws had to be issued?

 Interviewer: Why Mr. President?

 President Al-Assad: Because it is a new experience. For 40 years there were no private banks in Syria! There was a certain discussion about the suitable time to open such banks and you know that although these banks are private banks yet they are directly linked to the central bank as it is the case in any country. There was a development in the central bank, there were European experts who supported us in developing the central bank. Most of the people thought that the non-development of the central bank will affect this experiment, in the sense that if the law was issued it would not mean immediately to open the private banks. Issuing the law was an indication to the people that this subject has become a law and there is no question, whether we are going to take this step or not. We took this step. We had a discussion regarding its implementation in reality; a discussion about the required ground for the success of this experiment and to ensure its existence. Finally, the decision was that the ground is existing now and even if it was not complete there is a completion for this ground. We are able now to open private banks for the purpose of achieving success in future. I would like to say that in any new experiment there will be an extensive discussion.

 Interviewer: Creating the structure depends on the individual or on the human being. Your Excellency talked about creating the human being and this was the biggest concern for you during assuming office in a very short time. You opened many fields, but your ambition is much bigger?

 

President Al-Assad: Dialogue is the fundamental basis for any development, whatever the direction is. We want to create dialogue between people. This dialogue should start first at house and society, school, university and in every place. We want to create a dialogue between the citizen and the government, a dialogue between the government and the different institutions which speak out on interests. Dialogue is limitless and this is what we want. The basis is the dialogue, then this dialogue will produce the right and suitable form for Syria. But to say that we are going to achieve development in this direction, I can't myself, as an individual or any other individual, talk instead of all the society. That is why dialogue creates the final form of this development. The most important point in development is that we have started dialogue.

 

Interviewer: Dialogue, Mr. President, does not happen only in society. There are other affecting factors. For example, in Kuwait we have an affecting factors not only press, but there are divans, which, sometime, give a lot of ideas more than anything else?

 President Al-Assad: We have forums. You have divans which may include all slices of society while forums in Syria include intellectuals. But I said that dialogue is limitless and you can't say that this structure is suitable or not! All structures should be well prepared for conducting a dialogue.

 Interviewer: You mean all slices of society not only a specific one?

 

President Al-Assad: That is true and it means that this is our approach now. This is our point of view from the very beginning. But you have to put priorities in any kind of development. You can't develop everything at once, you have to put priorities in order to achieve breakthrough in certain fields.

 

Interviewer: You were more free before you shouldered the concerns of the presidency. You were responsible for the Lebanese file and your relation is still with Lebanon, with persons as a mechanism of ruling through parties, but today America is saying: the Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and some of the Lebanese ذ the majority let us assume ذ are saying: the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Then, a man like patriarch Sofeir comes to say in his recent statement: No. The Syrian withdrawal is wrong! How do you really see your relation with Lebanon?

 

President Al-Assad: Of course, if the majority were saying this, we would not have stayed for one single day in Lebanon, this is for sure. And if the majority were saying that, they would have considered the Syrian army as an invading army which should be kicked out. No army could stay despite the will of citizens, and I don't think that the Lebanese people do literally accept any occupation, otherwise why do they resist the Israeli occupation and not the Syrian "occupation"?! Therefore, if this was said by groups, then it did not mean that it expresses the opinion of the Lebanese street, otherwise we would be the first people to withdraw. Our relation with Lebanon is like this because it is a neighboring country and an Arab country. There are of course interrelated interests and families. Even the civil war that divided Lebanon into cantons, which were an accomplished fact at that time, did not isolate Syria from Lebanon; as far as the social ties are concerned. This is a fact, whether we like it or not. Interests are there whether we accept it or not. Syria can look at Lebanon only as an independent country; this issue is determined. We think that Lebanon has overcome the dangerous stage of the civil war and the redeployment of the Syrian forces since long time ago. Sometimes, redeployment is understood as a re-localization of the Syrian forces inside Lebanon! No, part of the redeployment was a withdrawal to Syria. This shows that the Lebanese state becomes able to maintain security in Lebanon and this was done through coordination with the Lebanese leadership and officials. The other issue is the issue of the Syrian and Lebanese security in front of any Israeli aggression which constitutes a danger against Syria and Lebanon. The mutual interests are the most important point between Syria and Lebanon. The other issue, however, is no longer existed and there is no problem regarding the issue of civil stability or the civil peace in Lebanon.

 Interviewer: The Lebanese society has overcome this, but what about the coming events? Mr. Powell asked you to talk to Hizboullah to stop the attacks, and you politically support Hizboullah, but not militarily. This is what you have said, but the Syrian weight in relation to Hizboullah is parallel if it is not heavier than the Iranian weight! So what was your concern regarding Hizboullah when you talked to President Khatami?

 President Al-Assad: President Khatami and I did not talk about this issue. Our stance is clear, and so is the stance of this party. Hizboullah is a Lebanese resistance party and its role inside the Lebanese territories is a resisting role, but other than this it has it's a political role and this is an internal Lebanese affair. Our dialogue with the Americans was in relation to this particular point. We were saying to the Americans that when Israel stops its continuous aggression and provocation, there will be no single action from Hizboullah; this was said by officials in Hizboullah. They do not start and they do not commit an aggression, while Israel is committing aggressions and the Hizboullah is reacting. Therefore, if the situation is like this, we will continue supporting Hizboullah. Hizboullah did not put any other vision; it did not say that it is seeking to eliminate Israel or that it is against Syria concerning the peace process. We did not hear such circulations. Hizboullah is saying: We want to liberate the last inch of the Lebanese territories. So, within this logic we can't be but with it and with the Lebanese people. It is not against the Lebanese people and if it were against the Lebanese people; it would never be able to achieve what it did. Therefore, according to this logic we are with Hizboullah.

 Interviewer: Much talk is being heard in the Syrian street about a cabinet reshuffle or change and that you personally are taking care of this, or as we usually say "on a calm fire"! Can you please give any justification for this reshuffle or change?

President Al-Assad: So far we haven't decided or said there will be any change. May be the rumors were built on what I said to the present ministers after the cabinet was formed in December 2001; I said that we always give any cabinet some time to work and that the assessment of its performance will start a year later. The year was over five months ago and people started to talk about the cabinet change, and the more time passes the more spreads the circulation. This doesn't mean there will be a change now, nor does it mean there isn't going to be a change. We are now in a stage of evaluation. There is now a new Peoples' Assembly. It started its first session last Saturday. The normal thing is that the more institutions and persons to participate in the evaluation, especially the MPs, the better the evaluation is. I mean we wanted the parliament to participate beside us in the evaluation process so that the evaluation will not be restricted only to the President. This is because the parliament is more capable to assess any issue through proposing the different problems, through its committees and through its big number of members; there are 250 MPs who represent the various sects and interests. So, we can say the evaluation process started last Saturday and that a great part of my decision will depend on the MPs' evaluation. May be this was a reason behind the circulation. But as we said the normal thing is to evaluate and to change; like I said we won't wait for a long time because after the evaluation there should be a certain procedure. Any minister whom people are pleased with will stay as minister and vice versa. This is the normal movement.

 Interviewer: Being No. 1 in the Ba'ath Party, how do you see the future of your party? I mean especially after the emergence of news about the dismantlement of the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. Will this affect your party, regardless of our strong belief of the huge difference between the two?

 President Al-Assad: Examining any party or ideology we must always look for the essence. This is of course because there are plenty of issues in the ethics of any party. These ethics might be wrong to a great extent. The Communists for example are not the same in the entire world, and so was "Socialism" in the Soviet Union. Any term we use in Syria must, in the first place, express our interests and not the other way round. Of course we can change a certain term according to our interests, but we do not change the country according to a certain term. That's why we must always think of our country's interests first. Our experience is different from the Iraqi because we took our interests and people into consideration. If we look at the Ba'ath Party we discover that it is in essence a national Arab party which believes in Pan-Arabism. All other aspects are additions that are believed by some people and disbelieved by others. There are national parties or currents that believe in socialism and others that do not. The basic essence is, however, the national essence; this or that party might succeed or fail whether or not it agrees or disagrees with the public state of mind prevailing in the region. Hence arises the question: Is the Arab street a national one? If yes, then this party is there. If not, the party will fail. I'm referring here to the Syrian Ba'ath party and the Syrian street. Regarding our Ba'ath party I consider its essence identical with the public opinion; people in the Arab countries interact almost in the same mode, whether positively or negatively. Therefore we consider our party's essence a sound one. Now, performance leads either to the success of a party or to its failure. While the most important aspect of the performance is flexibility; when the performance is inactive, it will fail. But if we go back to the Arab passions we'll discover that there is a difference between the 1980s passions and those of today. Of course Arab passions would have been developed if parties had started from Pan-Arab principles. This is the vocal point. Therefore we say we should develop performance. If I say I am a national person, it doesn't mean that Pan-Arabism is still the same. Pan-Arabism today is different from that of the 20th century. At that time there were different circumstances, and there was a period of time during which we didn't talk about Pan-Arabism. There was then the Ottoman state and we used to say, "What joins us is Islam." Consequently, the important thing is to develop the basis. As for the two parties in Syria and Iraq, I cannot see any connection between the two! Otherwise there shouldn't have been that much difference which forced us to pay our blood as a price! And everybody knows how much did Syria pay for that dispute. That dispute proves to be not less than 180-degree contradiction between the two parties. Still is the fact that people who shared our principles were killed, and all of us know about the year 1979 and everybody is talking about it nowadays. From another perspective, do you think there is any intersection between what happened in Afghanistan and the explosions that took place in Morocco and Saudi Arabia in the name of Islam? This is a terrorist act carried out in the name of Islam. That's why we consider what happened in Iraq as criminal acts carried out in the name of Pan-Arabism.

 Interviewer: What is our role towards Iraq, putting in mind that Iraqis reject the Americans as well as Saddam? You said you don't interfere in their internal affairs and that you're waiting for things to crystallize. Let's suppose that things crystallized, an Iraqi government was formed and that this government asked you to send peace and security keeping forces to Iraq. Will you answer their request? 

President Al-Assad: Definitely. If Iraqis requested that, we would definitely agree. There is no doubt about it. But the Iraqi people so far are asking the Americans to leave and to govern themselves. At any rate, if they asked for anything, we definitely wouldn't hesitate to help. And so is the position of other Arab countries.

 Interviewer: What is your vision of the status and capability of the Arab League? How do you see the current critical incompleteness of the League, the threats of countries like Libya to withdraw and the plenty of criticism addressed to its performance and to some of its characters?

 

President Al-Assad: The Arab League is the formula through which we coordinate our efforts. We created this formula. Bilateral meetings by no means can achieve the required coordination, neither as far as time is concerned nor on the practical level. The success or failure of this formula is related to us as Arab countries. However, we cannot evaluate the Arab League objectively before we assess ourselves because its success or failure depends on our success or failure in handling its formula. Let's for instance ask ourselves the following question: What do we need from the Arab League? Do I need it to coordinate with the rest of the Arab countries or just to be a cover for me as a state? If I want it to be a cover then this will collide with the interests of the other Arab countries. In this sense the Arab League will become a place for differences and not agreements! As for opposing persons, persons come and go in accordance with our stances. When we, as Arab countries, disagree with a certain character we can vote against him, but when we agree with him we vote for him. Of course I don't want to say that the problem of the Arab League is some person or the structureة but what does the structure mean? The Arab League is the place where we meet to be objective. I do not want here to blame others, but rather I would always prefer to start by myself. This is the general rule. When we say the Arab order has failed, we should not forget that we are part of it. We also don't say the Arab order has failed and Syria has succeeded! This is untrue. We must always share responsibility together, put ourselves at the top of people responsible for any disorder and celebrate success together as well. The problem of the Arab League is that it is only a place, or may be a trash pin in which we throw all our errors. I'm saying this because I'm an Arab official who is held responsible for part of the mistakes. But when I want to blame others or hold them responsible I simply say the Arab League has failed. But am I really successful? If we want to be objective we must be more candid. For instance people now talk about the League's charter, and I asked the Foreign Ministers, who participated in the Arab Follow-up Committee meeting few months ago: Did we implement the present charter in order to change it? Let's implement it to comprehend whether it can succeed or fail. I wonder how can we say the charter has failed while we haven't implemented it! And I wonder how can we adopt another charter that we'll never implement! Hence, let's implement the present one, identify points of strength and weakness and then move to another one. We, in the Arab countries, always escape forward and bury our heads in the ground with two aims in mind: (1) Evading seeing the truth, and (2) trying to see another state of affairs. Let's acknowledge that we neither can achieve solidarity nor can we give success to the Arab League. Why do we claim that the Arab League didn't lead us to succeed? We are the ones who didn't give it success! Therefore, we must have a vision that the League should be the place where we exchange ideas in a candid way and accept others' ideas, but not ask it to cover our stands and hold others responsible for the mistakes. Let's be clear and candid.

 Interviewer: As your Excellency clarified, we are all contributing to the errors and to the success. If we look at the experiment of the Gulf Cooperation Council we'll acknowledge it was successfulة then there was the liberation of Kuwait, then Damascus Declarationة I mean there is a Gulf Cooperation Council, and that the Levant includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraqة I mean do you aspire for establishing a council that includes the Levant countries?

 

President Al-Assad: We consider any step, no matter how small it might be, as better than nothing and of course better than the current crumbled or territorial situation. We do not say in passionate terms that Nationalism is the solution whereas Pan-Arabism is something romantic. No. They are harmonious, and the entire world is heading in this same direction; the world is heading towards unification, including companies. This is something true at the present time. We wanted to say this to show why did the experiment of the Gulf Cooperation Council succeed to the extend you just stated, and of course you are more capable to evaluate this. You were successful in the experiment of the Gulf Cooperation Council not because the organization itself succeeded, but because the officials succeeded. Success and failure depend on officials; when a certain experiment succeeded, then it means the officials succeeded in accomplishing something and vice versa. We say the same thing about the experiment of the Arab League, but in a much smaller way. We are not against any bilateral relationship between any two Arab countries! On the contrary, if their relationship is distinguished then it is the start of a relationship with three or may be four other countries. There is nothing called the "only correct formula," and we shouldn't say if everything wasn't achieved then we need nothing! If any step was big, we don't mind to divide it to a thousand steps, or even a million steps. What is really important is to keep going on and on in case we know where our interests lie. We, as Arab countries, as educates and as various sections, claim that our interest lies in our unity! So the normal thing is to move towards any kind of unity or solidarity, or any other third term that I might not be familiar with. We should be in harmony with each other, in economics, politicsةetc. In short, we support any experiment of the kind.

 Interviewer: When you assumed office you exerted a big effort to keep the contacts with the other Arab countries you visited many Arab countries, including Morocco, and this is important. We consider you visit to Kuwait a very important one, especially your decision to stay when His Highness the Prince asked you to do so. These little details count. Nowadays, however, we do not see many Syrian officials visiting Kuwait. But despite that Sheikh Sabah visited Damascus!

 President Al-Assad: We highly appreciate Sheikh Sabah's initiative. During the meeting I told him that I appreciate your visit in these abnormal circumstances. But as I said right at the beginning, we, Arabs, heavily neglect each other. Syria is one of the Arab countries, and for sure we are not working hard for the interest of the Arab-Arab relations. Of course this is one of the aspects of the gap. As you stated, when His Highness the Prince asked me to stay for another day I agreed because we felt in that request a very important indication to the relationship between Syria and Kuwait. But generally speaking, we are not following up our mutual relations. We are not building a proper structure, and whoever plants a seed and not irrigates it, he will never see it as a big tree. This is the problem. So, I agree with you. My visit to Kuwait is not enough to build a healthy relationship, nor is the visit of Sheikh Sabah to Syria. It only laid the foundation, and if we want to start the real building, we must follow up and avoid committing the same mistakes. 

 

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