"Any problem can be solved through dialogue"

December 12, 2005‏ ‏ 

summary: Mr Brilev: Mr President, thank you very much for granting us this interview. The Russian television and Russian people highly appreciate receiving us here in Damascus at this particular time which witnesses complications for the international situations and for Syria in particular.‏ ‏ 

You spent years in the West, in England in particular; and you understand a number of European languages without an interpreter. But there seems to be some problems concerning communications between the West and Syria. Furthermore, while Iraq created divisions in the Western alliance, the opposite is happening now: countries which were at loggerheads previously, like the United States and France, and particularly Presidents Bush and Chirac, seem to be in agreement now. What are you doing to get out of this situation?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: In the beginning, I would like to welcome you. The problem concerning the relationship between Syria and part of the West, not all of the West, is with some Western officials. So, it is not a problem of language as you said. I understand their language, and some of them might understand Arabic. But the problem is with the conceptions carried by languages. There is a great difference in conceptions. There is a difference in cultures which is widening instead of narrowing by virtue of developments in communication methods. But in order for things to be normal, the West has to know more about our region, our history, our conceptions, about the real causes of our problems. What is required is for the West to stop dealing with terminology and to start addressing the problems by dealing with the facts on the ground. We live this reality, while they live thousands of miles away. They have to listen to our views and to understand the way we think. ‏ ‏ 

You described the situation and the relationship between Syria, on the one hand, and the United States and France on the other, as strange. This is true. We have not created this reconciliation between them, and I do not think they are reconciled. But each of them has a special objective in putting pressure on Syria, which is different from the objective of the other. ‏ ‏ 

As far as we are concerned, we have a principle in dealing with problems. This principle is that any problem can be solved through dialogue. There is no other alternative. Our doors are always open, to all countries without exception, for dialogue on different issues. But this takes into account Syria`s interests. No dialogue can be conducted at the expense of our interests or at the interests of our causes and our conceptions. There is a dialogue at the bottom line, which we are trying to develop. On the other hand, we have wide reaching relations with other friendly countries in the world which know and understand our causes and know that Syria is right. We have never violated international law, we are an element of stability in the region. We have never tried to destabilize our region. These countries have to help change this unnatural situation. This is what we have been doing so far. ‏ ‏ 

Mr Brilev: When you talk about friendly countries, do you mean that Syria relies on the support of Russia and China in the Security Council?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: They are defending us at any rate, but Russia and China are not the only two countries in the Security Council. There are five permanent members and ten other members which have a role in the vote. And the question is not defending Syria because it is a friend of Russia and China. As I said, Syria is important for stability, for combating terrorism, for the peace process, and for the stability of the situation in Iraq in the future. None of these issues in the Middle East can be addressed without Syria. Russia and China have an interest in supporting Syria on these issues because they have an interest in stability. ‏ ‏ 

Mr Brilev: The present crisis, or the misunderstanding between Syria and the outside world, at least with the countries you mentioned, started after the assassination of Hariri, what do you expect of the results of the Mehlis Commission which will publish its findings next week?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: No. The misunderstanding started before the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. But the assassination gave some a pretext to step up the pressure against Syria. Nevertheless, we cooperated with the international commission which preceded the Mehlis commission, the Fitzgerald Commission, and with the Mehlis Commission. The first report was neither positive nor fair towards Syria. Nevertheless, we have always expressed our desire to cooperate with the report, first because of our desire to cooperate with the Investigation Commission, and second because the investigation, although not a professional one, will directly serve Syria, because we have a great and almost absolute confidence, if not absolute, that Syria is innocent. If this investigation is a professional one, it will lead to this result. What we expect of this report, as I said, is for it to be professional, fair, objective and accurate. More clearly, this is what we hope. We cannot expect, because we do not have indications to base our expectations on. But we hope that the work of the Commission will be in this direction.‏ ‏ 

Mr Brilev: I allow myself to raise an unpleasant question: what if the Mehlis Commission confirmed next week that Syrians are guilty, and if it named some of those close to you as guilty, maybe some relatives, or some trusted generals? You already said that if traitors were found they would be punished. If the Mehlis Commission pointed to a certain person, close to you, will you arrest such people?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: There are no unpleasant questions, there are only unpleasant facts. I said in the past that any Syrian person proven to have a link with the assassination is a traitor under Syrian law, and the punishment of traitors is very severe. The question is not close or not so close names, the question is that the person involved should be brought to account. But at the same time, and in order to say that a Syrian person is guilty, there should be evidence, and that is what we want. That is why when we say that the work of the commission should be professional, this means looking for evidence. When you start looking for explosives, you examine where the explosives came from, where the car came from, the identity of the person who carried out the operation. You could analyze DNA and other specialized issues. So far, we have not received anything related to all these issues. If there is an evidence, we will deal with the evidence. We cannot deal with anything related to politicizing facts.‏ ‏ 

Mr Brilev: For those who do not live in the Middle East, and those who follow up the development of events from the sidelines, the details which are clear and understandable to you need further clarifications. Syria`s position is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with this terrible crime. Did you, as an observer, as a president of a country whose forces remained for a long period of time in Lebanon, believe that political events in Lebanon will take this dramatic turn which they took when Hariri was assassinated? And did you expect that somebody might assassinate Hariri?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: Since the civil war in Lebanon stopped in 1990 until the assassination of Hariri, a number of acts of sabotage took place in Lebanon, explosions and assassination of different personalities. Some of those operations succeeded and some did not. We were in Lebanon at that time. We did not have any indication of any of these operations before they took place. The same was the case with the assassination of Hariri. We did not have any indication whatsoever that something was going to happen.‏ ‏ 

As to the political shift, it is inseparable from the regional situation and the international situation. It is not a separate situation. Anyway, we did not expect it. I think that most countries of the world did not expect this form of shifts which happened, particularly after September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. It is, no doubt, difficult to expect the world to go in this direction, because we always hope for the better not for the worse. Now the world is moving backward, i.e. moving towards the worst. And we in the Middle East and in Syria and Lebanon are affected by this condition.‏ ‏ 

Mr Brilev: You talked about the international context. And within the same context, I would like to put a question to you about the possibility of a compromise between Syria and the Mehlis Commission or the United Nations in general. What would such a compromise be in your view? Do you have an idea of what the West expects of you? There are specific allegations against you: the Mehlis Commission is investigating the assassination of Hariri, and there are allegations in relation to the situation in Iraq, and this is what we shall come back to later. So, what could that compromise be between Syria and the outside forces opposed to you?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: First, the Investigation Commission is not a state. Second, we are not opposed to the Investigation Commission. On the contrary, we support the Investigation Commission; and consequently, any compromise means that one party concedes something. As far as we are concerned, we are looking for the causes of the crime and they are looking for the causes of the crime. So in principle, I do not think there is any conflict between Syria and the Investigation Commission. But there is a kind of political performance surrounding the Investigation Commission which is trying to blur the real work which the Investigation Commission is supposed to be doing. Therefore, suppose we use the word compromise which you have suggested, we can say that the only compromise is for the Investigation Commission to work independently and honestly away from politics. ‏ ‏ 

As we said earlier, what we want is for this Commission to be professional and to uncover the causes of this crime. Then there will be a compromise, if we call it thus. That will be a good settlement. As I said, the goal is the same, and consequently there are no concessions from any party. We have no problem with cooperation, full cooperation with this commission or any other commission charged with uncovering the causes of this crime.‏ ‏ 

Brilev: The Syrian government officials to whom I talked, and your Excellency indirectly, stress a contradictory idea about the common interests between Syria and the United States in relation to Iraq in particular. Understandably, everyone needs a stable Iraq, and a stable Iraq is essential for Russia too and for all countries of the region. In this regard, the Americans repeatedly accuse your country that the Syrian borders with Iraq are porous and that many individuals cross them and later join the terrorists. There are different interpretations of what these individuals are called, but the name is not important. At least they are people who are involved in military operations and do not allow Iraq to become stable. How do you respond to this accusation, particularly in relation to the porousness of the borders between Syria and Iraq?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: Borders are not simply a line. They have an Iraqi side and a Syrian side. That is the situation in all countries of the world.‏ ‏ 

For us in Syria, we have had guards on our borders with Iraq for a long time, or for the past two decades. As you know, there is no country in the world which can control its borders completely with any other country in this world. The Americans accuse us of this while at the same time they say that they are unable to control their borders with Mexico. The United States is a superpower, yet it cannot control its borders, so how could Syria control its borders? Nevertheless, there is a possibility for the borders to be controlled in a reasonable manner: not closed, but controlled, which means that smuggling individuals is at its lowest with any country. In order to achieve this we need the two sides of the borders. One party cannot control the borders. This means that there should be certain measures taken on the other side, in Iraq, by the Americans or the Iraqis. These measures could be military, could be technical, or there might be security cooperation. The fact of the matter is that the problem in Iraq is the great political failure and the great military failure which we can see now. This is the reality.‏ ‏ 

There is no desire to acknowledge that the resistance in Iraq is carried out mostly by Iraqis. The Americans are always blaming other parties: they blame individuals they call terrorists who carry out operations against the forces present there, the occupation forces. This is not true. This is running away from the truth. That is why they say there are individuals who come to Iraq through the Syrian borders. Of course there is a certain situation which appeared after the war on Iraq which led to the increase of extremism. Terrorism is on the rise in our region and in the world. There are borders which are crossed illegally by individuals. This is always there, but it increases with the effect of the wars which surround us. Blaming Syria is the alternative for not acknowledging the failure which exists in Iraq now. ‏ ‏ 

Brilev: To follow up on the border issue, in Russia, Middle East specialists with whom I spoke highly appreciate Syria`s role as a secular country, and at the same time as part of the Islamic world. Syria plays an important role in the dialogue between Russia and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, particularly in changing the position of OIC towards what is happening in the Russian Caucasus. My question to you as president of a secular regime, but at the same time as president of an Islamic country is: how do you, in the Islamic world in general and in Syria in particular, look at Islamic extremists. There is a lot of talk about this in Russia. They particularly mention Islamic extremists when there are large scale terrorist acts. You too, as far as I know, are fighting this problem. And I know that last week the Syrian security systems and Syrian forces discovered a group belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood in the north of the country. So, to what extent does this phenomenon pose a threat and a problem for you?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: To be a secular state and a Muslim country is natural. There is no contradiction, as some people might believe, because secularism does not mean opposing religions, it rather means the freedom of religions and dissociating the state from the religion of individuals. ‏ ‏ 

As to the Muslim Brotherhood, some of them believe in violence, and some of them are extremists. We have suffered from the acts of these groups in Syria in different periods, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, when they carried out violent and terrorist acts which killed thousands of Syrians and injured tens of thousands in addition to obstructing economic development and other aspects in Syrian life. ‏ ‏ 

So, the question is not the Muslim Brotherhood, it is rather the part which believes in violence. There are other similar currents which believe in violence and terrorism, may be because they believe that this serves Islam. Of course, there is no Islamic terrorism, because terrorism is separate from Islam. It is only terrorism. But now the term "Islamic terrorism" has become common. This is a dangerous type of terrorism. When it targeted us we conducted a campaign at the level of some Western European countries in order to persuade those countries that hosting some of the leaders of extremism and terrorism in Europe will rebound against them one day. We did indeed suffer from these groups in the 1970s and 1980s, and they started to hit at some Arab countries towards the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s. We saw the dangerous consequences in New York, London, and Madrid. You too are suffering from terrorist acts in Russia now. This means that terrorism does not acknowledge borders. If you have terrorism in your country, it might carry out operations against us one day, because you cannot control it. Terrorism cannot be confined by borders. Many countries in the world have started to understand this and to understand that fighting terrorism should be done on the international level. ‏ ‏ 

It is true that we have experience in this regard because we suffered from this before others and because we live in a Muslim region. We understood that fighting terrorism cannot be done by waging wars. Wars, particularly when they are unfair, actually activate terrorism, and this is what we see after the war on Iraq now. ‏ ‏ 

Fighting terrorism is in the first place an intellectual activity, because terrorism is a mentality before it is organizations. Ignorance should be fought with dialogue, with fair political positions, because many of these terrorists make a pretext either of a religious cause or a political one. You have to deal with this issue politically. This is the way we deal with terrorism, not by condemnation. Condemnation does not obliterate terrorism. We and the rest of the world condemned the Sep. 11th attacks, but terrorism continued after Sep. 11th. So we have to build a network of international cooperation, and as I said Syria has the expertise and has the desire for this kind of cooperation. ‏ ‏ 

Brilev: you are listening to the Russian language for the second time this week, as far as I know. Two days ago you received a delegation from the Russian company Stroy Transgas which intends to take part in building the Arab gas line and a gas plant here in Syria. My question is, would the future of these gas contracts and the many military contracts between Russia and Syria depend on the political position that Moscow will take when the question of Syria is raised at the Security Council? ‏ ‏ 

President Assad: Of course, this economic relationship, even in the field of oil, did not start this decade. It has been there for a long time, but the fact is that what strengthened economic relations between Syria and Russia, in addition to the political relations, is the successful visit which I made to Moscow at the beginning of this year. One of the most important points during that visit was finding a solution to the problem of debt between the two countries that remained unsolved for long decades. Solving this problem opened the doors for economic cooperation in many areas. Signing this contract comes as part of this cooperation. This does not mean that the political relationship does not reflect positively and negatively on any economic relationship between Syria and Russia or between Syria and other countries. ‏ ‏ 

There is no doubt that Syria and Russia are now political allies, and it is natural that in a situation of political alliance benefits and merits are given to the companies in one of these two countries. On the other hand, and this is of course from a Syrian perspective, I do not think that Russia will take a political decision for this contract. There are interests much larger than this contract. As I said earlier, there are interests in the stability of the region and in the role of Syria. You know that there was no stability in this region. Now, particularly after the war on Iraq, which was the last ditch in the region`s stability, any political or military mistake in this region will push the region towards chaos. This will affect the southern borders of the Russian Federation. So, as I said, I believe that the economic dimension, the political dimension, in addition to stability represent the greater part of our relationship with Russia. ‏ ‏ 

Brilev: I have two other questions which I believe will shed light on your position. There is a well-known Russian maxim, and it is well-known outside Russia too and is easy to translate to all languages. It says, "tell me who your friend is, and I tell you who you are!". Now, there is a wide-spread view which says that if Syria had a reliable friend among the countries geographically close to it, that friend would be Iran. Iran is now in a difficult international position particularly because of its nuclear program. Do you believe that this nuclear program is a problem? And another question: do you believe that Iran has the right to possess nuclear weapons?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: the Russian maxim you mentioned is correct, but when we apply it to states and peoples, it is important for you if you want to know me and to know my friend to understand our culture. It is particularly correct when we know each other in depth. Regrettably, what we hear from many officials, Western officials and some Eastern ones sometimes, but I do not mean in the Middle East, and what we read and hear in the media, shows lack of understanding of the mentality and the culture of this region. This is just a comment on your maxim. ‏ ‏ 

‏ As to the nuclear issue, we cannot talk about this issue in terms of how one country is thinking. We have to look at it in the larger framework of the Middle East. First, if the nuclear issue is within the peaceful framework, it is the right of every country in this world. There is nothing that prevents any country in the world from possessing nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes. And Iran says clearly that it wants this reactor for peaceful purposes. It says this in public and behind closed doors. ‏ ‏ 

As to the nuclear weapons issue, which is the point you raised, we hear this talked about in order to mean that Iran wants the peaceful reactor in order to obtain nuclear weapons. We cannot look at the question in this way. We have to think in a more comprehensive manner. We have to see the whole region. If we do not want to consider the issue on the international level, let us at least look at the Middle East. If we say that in the Middle East there is one state which has the right to possess nuclear weapons, then all states have that right. If we do not want to see nuclear weapons in any state in the Middle East, we have to carry out a disarmament operation in all these countries, and I mean Israel here. Israel is the only country in the Middle East which possesses nuclear weapons. We in Syria launched an initiative at the Security Council in 2003 in order to make the whole Middle East free of mass destruction weapons.‏ ‏ 

We in Syria thought that there should not be any mass destruction weapons, including nuclear weapons in the Middle East. But it is not sufficient to look at this issue from a theoretical perspective. There has to be practical application. If some countries are concerned because they suspect that a certain country, Iran or any other country, wants to possess nuclear weapons, they should use the same logic with Israel. Otherwise, decades later this region will be unstable and any technology will in the end be transferred to other places. I am not talking now about the near future. This might happen decades later and the world will pay the price one day. That is why it is better to take up the Syrian initiative at the Security Council, which was obstructed by the United States. I believe that it is better for all the countries of the world to support this initiative and to introduce amendments which can of course be subject to discussion.‏ ‏ 

Brilev: The last question, and here I go back to my first question about the unity of language and political communication, I do not believe that here I am revealing a Syrian government secret when I say that it is not only you who studied in England but your father in law still lives and works in England. And it could be said that Syria uses unofficial diplomacy with the outside world in this difficult and complicated situation. Do you intend to use another part of your unofficial diplomacy in order to convey Syria`s position or Syria`s willingness to accept compromises to the governments of the world through your expatriate community in different countries? For instance, your community in Russia is very active. You also have a community in England and another in the United States. Do you intend to use this possibility, particularly that members of your communities have direct contacts with Western leaders which can be used in order to build contacts with those leaders. And of course that does not necessarily need to have an official diplomatic nature?‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: We do this all the time, and you know that this interview was arranged through the Syrian community or a member of the Syrian community. We have large communities in different countries of the world and they have wide relationships and they carry out such initiatives, we too ask them to do that. ‏ ‏ 

We have to explain our position to everyone. There is political chaos accompanied by a media chaos. This leads to a chaos in conceptions, and consequently we cannot ask the world to understand our position without us explaining it. ‏ ‏ 

These communities are the most powerful weapon we have to explain our position, because they live in those countries, understand their language, understand their culture and can translate our conceptions and causes into their conceptions, so that the reception of the conception is accurate. This achieves communication instead of the diversions we see on the international level. Of course we need more active steps in this framework but this does not prevent us from carrying out shuttle diplomatic missions to different countries of the world and to have different kinds of contacts. And this is how it is now between you and us on the Security Council issue. On the issue of the investigation, there is very strong coordination between Syria and Russia and the Syrian community is helping us in that framework.‏ ‏ 

Brilev: My last question and could be the cruelest question: is Syria ready for sanctions? ‏ ‏ 

President al-Assad: First, we do not know whether or not there will be sanctions. At any rate, we have to prepare for the worst. We live in a turbulent region, we live in an unfair international order which is replete with chaos, as I said, and consequently we have to be always prepared for the worst. To prepare yourself does not mean that you cannot win. It at least means that if you lose you should limit your losses.‏ ‏ 

But we have to continue this answer with a question: which countries are trying to impose sanctions? What will they achieve? Will they win? They won`t. They will lose. The Middle East is at the heart of the world and Syria is at the heart of the Middle East, and if the situation in Syria and Iraq is not good that will cause problems in the whole region, and the whole world will pay the price. Another question: what will they achieve? They will not, as I said at the beginning of the interview, be able to deal with the question of terrorism. Terrorism will spread. And they will not be able to achieve peace. This will also increase terrorism. There will be more poverty, and this will increase terrorism. Consequently, the whole world, together with Syria and the Middle East will pay the price. I think when we pose this question we will arrive at the logical answer: that the sanctions will not achieve anything and that the only solution is through political work and dialogue. There is no other option. It has been proven that war does not achieve positive results even when it is launched by a strong super power. ‏ ‏ 

Brilev: thank you very much Mr President. ‏ ‏ 

‏ President Assad: I thank you and welcome you to Syria