"Reform is to go with maximum speed but with the least losses"

President Bashar al-Assad on Monday gave a comprehensive interview to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper on the latest developments in the region.

On impressions regarding retreat of the Arab role to the sake of Iranian one in the region, President al-Assad said: " We have to define whether the Arab role is existing or not," I don't think we had seen an important Arab role except formal one" he added.

" Iran is an important state in the region and its role is necessary for the region's security, in integration with the Arab role and not as an alternative," al-Assad indicated.

He mentioned that the topic of the Iranian role was present in recent talks he has made with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

" I frankly said that some are talking negatively about an Iranian role…The only solution is through creating an effective Arab role, so let us, on the Arab level, move in the Iraqi direction because it poses the main axis for talking about the Iranian role." The President noted.

Answering a question on the cause of tepidity of the relations with Jordan President al-Assad said: " In general, the inter-Arab relations lack communication," adding " There is no essential disagreements with Jordan… We have political viewpoints that a little or much differ from Jordan's or others'." 

President al-Assad went on to say: " We are seeking to thaw out these relations through the economic file and political relations in addition to the security file."

On a question on Jordanian differences regarding security issue, President al-Assad indicated that " There is no differences pertaining to the security file but there are mistakes that a certain official shoulders the responsibility for," underlining that all Arab regimes share the same concern over security particularly after the war on Iraq … there are terrorism and extremism spreading that all are suffering from.

The meeting with President Mubarak dealt with the Syrian-Jordanian relations, and " mainly with the Palestinian and Iraqi issues not because Lebanon is unimportant and because performance of some Lebanese politicians have lost Lebanon credibility on the Arab arena." 

" Syria has twice welcomed Lebanese Premier Fouad al-Saniora visit to Syria even without agenda but he didn't come." Al-Assad said.

On whether Syria's doors are opened, as Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said, will they be opened also before Gen Michael Aoun, the President answered: " yes, surly," and if there were contacts for arranging his visit to Syria al-Assad said: " not yet, particularly that we are waiting for outcomes of Lebanese dialogue."

On MP Saad Hariri sayings to President Jack Chirac of France that Syria is deepening divisions in Lebanon, al-Assad pointed out that " divisions are part of Lebanon's history... They didn't emerge neither in the civil war nor during Syria's presence in Lebanon. They are before the French presence itself, so talks on divisions are innovated and unreal."

Whether the speech of Berri regarding the opened doors is fit in case Saad Hariri became Prime Minister, the President said yes, and "this speech was proposed to us 5 or 6 months ago when we said the same speech regardeless of the post… they asked if Saad Hariri comes to Syria, will he be received, we answered yes… it is not a problem, we in Syria will not go down in our policy to the level of the Lebanese statements, there are no personal factors in policy, but common interests,." 

Answering a question on if any Arab party tried to rearrange the relation between Syria and Lebanese MP Saad Hariri, President Assad stressed that the situation didn't reach to the level of arranging the relation, but the question was proposed as: are you ready to receive him? And we didn't know if there was a real intention to come or it was a mere question. 

On the international investigation into Hariri assassination and the Syrian-Lebanese relations , the President said that the concern was not from the investigation, adding "till now 4 reports were issued.. two of them during the days of the former Committee which aimed to condemn Syria… nevertheless the first and second reports were not able to condemn Syria, they accused Syria without any proof, so the report was weak and the other two reports seemed to be professional as Syria says and they didn't accuse Syria." 

"So, in the context, the way of investigation with its contradictory stages is satisfactory to Syria not the opposite, sometimes I say that the first stage was satisfactory as the second stage because it was not able to condemn Syria though it wanted to," President Assad added. 

"Concern comes from the volume of the international pressures to divert the way of investigation, we wish they will fail to interfere or divert the professionalism of investigation… so we are not concerned of investigation because the issues run in the direction of clarifying that Syria has no relation to the assassination, particularly with the increase of probabilities " President Assad said. 

On whether any Syrian has been proven convicted, he would be extradited, President Assad stressed " he is a traitor… and before he will be extradited, he will be punished by the Syrian law… and the Syrian law is not simple regarding this matter." 

Answering a question on whether there is a new visit to Brammertz to Syria and if he asked to come here, the President answered no, he didn't ask. 

President Assad added that he was satisfied during and after the meeting with Brammertz "because, basically, our understanding is that when the investigator comes to listen to your point of view then you are the winner. Mehles asked twice to meet me but I rejected in both times…we even didn't answer him….apart from any international situation or other…like the UN Security Council because the aim is known…"

"When Brammertz came the situation was different for us…I was personally enthusiastic because the political background is important in such a kind of investigation…I was satisfied before, during and after the meeting which was good and lasted almost an hour. He was clear in the report when he said that Syria's cooperation was satisfactory… and under the current political circumstances this is good. When he didn't deny Syria's cooperation this means that Syria has cooperated in everything…this cooperation is continuous and open in the framework of the investigation and professionalism."

Answering a question alleged fears that 'pro-Syrian forces' in Lebanon are seeking to topple the government to complicate the story of the international court in the next stage, President Assad said "I didn't hear such talk except limited things…but logically, the aim of the international court is reaching results that are based on investigations. Usually when a crime takes place, the police or investigators come and present the findings to the court. How the court could be formed while investigations haven't finished and while there are no data to build on ? the aim is political, and the game is clear."

Replying a question on whether a Syrian embassy in Lebanon could be seen in case a 'friend of Syria' becomes Prime Minister of Lebanon, President Assad said "as for the issue of the embassy, I submitted the issue in the latest meeting of the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council when president Emile Lahoud and Premier Omar Karami were in Damascus in March 2005…there were no Lebanese pressures. 

"I said then that we had no problem, and if you think there is need for an embassy then study it and let's see what is the contradiction between it and the Supreme Council. It's illogical to reject an embassy or to say there should not be an embassy…Syria has never rejected the idea of an embassy in Lebanon, but it said it wasn't necessary, particularly that distance between Beirut and Damascus is shorter than that between Damascus and Homs. This is the principle, namely, that the relations are run without an embassy. In principle, there is no objection to the issue of embassy, but the embassy cannot come by imposition, neither local, regional nor international."

President Assad, in reply to a question on demarcation of the Syrian-Lebanese borders and the resolution 1680 which calls on Syria to do so, said that in October, before the resolution, the answer came directly from Syrian Prime Minister to a letter from Premier Saniora that Syria agrees to demarcate the borders, but the game was clear.

"Even when we agreed, we knew what the game which Saniora sought….the issue at that time was Shebaa farms. For us Shebaa Farms cannot be demarcated now. You have to start first from the north or any other place, but not Shebaa Farms which are under the Israeli occupation. This is our position in a clear-cut form. But as for the demarcation of the borders, you know that this took place with Jordan two years ago and there was no problem," the President added. 

He said that "when they asked questions on our way of treatment with Lebanon…I told them that for us we see several Lebanons. Now when we open dialogue with a Lebanese side this doesn't mean that we are in dialogue with the other sides. The problem is in Lebanon. The Lebanese have to solve their problems and outline a clear vision, and then we are ready to make an initiative to deal with Lebanon in a certain direction, but there are now tendencies and contradictions among them. When the Lebanese agree on the final form and details of all the subjects raised then Syria can deal with them comfortably without any complications."

The president said that the relations with the Lebanese Hizbullah Party haven't changed, adding that these relations were not based on the previous Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the relations are still warm with Mr. Hassan Nassrullah. 

Answering a question on how Syria reacted to the formation of the so-called 'national salvation front', president Assad said the issue was received by ridicule "because any action towards change should depend on the people. We live with the people in Syria. I live with the people and know quite how the people look at those. As for the formation of fronts outside …and an international or half international support...all of these talks are nonsense, and taken ridiculously on the public level."

The President added that the 'national salvation front' enjoy, somehow, an international political support, but it was not known whether there is financial support to it.

Answering a question whether Syria was surprised that Abdul Halim Khaddam was a party of the 'front' or whether this was expected, President Assad said "No, we weren't surprised. It's not necessary that we expect such thing as the from is not important. We think the storm is long…but we are stronger and more confident of ourselves."

President Assad said the recent arrests were an interior affaire and we don't allow any one to interfere stressing that the declaration in this respect was damaging the Syrian national security and happened in cooperation with anti-Syria Lebanese forces publicly and secretly therefore, it poses as like as violation of law and in contrast with the national situation . He said it was normal to apply law on them as they are now facing a normal court and not marshal court. 

In reply to another question on Lebanon, President Assad said that contacts with President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon are continuous and every Saturday morning he speaks with him. "The dialogue in Lebanon will decide the future of things in Lebanon. I don't know if they have agreed on any of the substantial issues. Taif Agreement called for canceling sectarianism among other things, but nothing of its items has been achieved. I don't think there is somebody who can decide who is the next President in Lebanon."

The President added that he didn't know Gen. Michel Oun in person as Syria's relations with him were not good and in a clash position sometimes. "He doesn't seek to revenge Syria or harm it…on the contrary, he has been defending Syria…we cannot turn our eyes to this, and we cannot deny it,"

President Assad, answering a question whether the door of relations is totally closed to Walid Jumblatt, said "we didn't close the door…he did that politically and morally. All borders have been bypassed. There is no contact at all. It’s difficult to do so."

He added that the problem with some Lebanese politicians is that "they talk about equal foot relations…are they so in their relations with France or America?"

Answering a question whether the relations with France are still very bad, the President said "Definitely with President Jacque Chirac…but with the other French institutions the relations are good…and that's the strange thing…the relation hasn't been affected with France as a whole. We told the French clearly in more than one letter: We cannot allow our relations with any other country to pass through a third country, and subsequently if France wants to build good relations with Syria then it has to build it with Syria not through Lebanon."

On the relations with the U.S., President Assad said that "We always call them for dialogue, apart from the form of invitation whether in a letter or through a third party or press statements…we in most of our political discourse talk about necessity of dialogue and specifically with America. This is the important question: until now it seems unable to do so. For example, an American delegation came to us last week and asked that the meeting be kept away from the press…we agreed and the meeting took two hours…they said the administration listen to their opinions...maybe half of the delegation are from the administration…God knows…but the delegation comes under different names."

He stressed that Syria is under no isolation as a result of the pressures on it. "As I said in my latest speech before the Arab Lawyers meeting…the issue of isolation is something figurative, but in content nothing has changes at all…Syria has always sought a real active role. The Syrian political role has now become better than a few years ago due to the Syrian vision which has proved to be true,"

Answering a question on whether Syria is worried over the Iranian nuclear file…or whether Syria sees the possibility of an American-Iranian war, President Assad said "if we think logically, I don't see this possibility…because there are no clear horizons for it, and nobody can decide where things could end up, neither in their geographical nor destructive capabilities. I don't think there is now someone in the United States or other country who believes it's possible to decide things in this sort of war. At the beginning dialogue was rejected….now there is talk about dialogue, and we wish that dialogue starts in a real way. Things go in the right direction as we see them."

The President said that Syria is not part of a scenario in which the U.S. attacks Iranian nuclear reactors. "we are not part of the scenario of reaction. But surely when the region enters in a state of chaos it's possible things will not remain stable for everybody….events could push you to become part of this chaos, and then the issue will be very big and dangerous."

"We don't go with anybody. Syria has its own position and Iran has its own position…and Iraq is between us. Now Iraq is the most important issue in the region, and we both can play its role from its own angel without contradiction or being dependent on the other. It's not requested to isolate Iran to say that Syria plays an Arab role. We are playing an Arab role in cooperation with Iran."

He added that the Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian triangle "is important and plays a role…maybe not through a three-way meeting on the way of summit or a meeting of foreign ministers…but the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian coordination is there now on the same issues and we continuously coordinate…in form it's there but in different form."

In reply to a question whether Syria is ready to help America out of Iraq, President Assad said "Syria was basically against the war and has always called in public for the departure of the occupying troops from Iraq. It's taken for granted that we offer any possible help for the departure of the occupation troops…or let's say to offer all facilities…because help could take other meanings…surely we are ready."

He added that China and Russia stood with Syria in all difficult stages in a clear and decisive way. "Syria's policy also seeks to expand its relations with different countries which are important through its permanent membership at the Security Council…but we also expand our relations with Asian countries in general and with Latin America. These relations are important now under the international conditions in which America unilaterally leads the world."

Answering a question whether Syria is ready to persuade Hamas to accept the Arab peace initiative, President Assad said Hamas has objections to the initiative, and part of Hamas is inside and the bigger part outside. We are waiting for a dialogue within Hamas on these issues, and we need to give time to make the dialogue. The Arab initiative is dead as long as the other party considers it as existent."

"Our relations with Mahmoud Abbas is good. His merit is that he is obvious. When I met him in several occasions in Syria and in the Arab summit I told him we are interested in the unity of the Palestinians."

Replying a question whether Syria is afraid of a civil war in an open civil war in Iraq that has effects on the neighboring countries, President Assad said "surely…we talk about this continuously …particularly when we explain to the foreigners the effects of such things in Iraq for the rest of the countries in the region…Syria will be affected…so we always warn against this issue."

"We told the brothers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that we will move ( regarding Iraq) because the meeting of Iraq's neighboring countries didn't yield the sought-for results. Of course there is a forthcoming meeting but after three years. There must be certain bases through which we move. Now we are meeting with a lot of Iraqi delegations in an informal way…we look for something common which should be done by the Arab countries concerned to reach a political formula and unite the Iraqis."

He added that Syria has begun contacts first to restore the diplomatic relations with Iraq followed by appointing an ambassador or opening an embassy, and then there is talk about meeting between Foreign Ministers of Syria and Iraq. "Of course we didn't outline the deadlines in details…but the stage is still early…because we are talking now about political relations and we are looking for establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq."

Answering a question on whether the situation in Iraq has to do with the growing clashes between Syrian security forces and 'Takfiri' groups, President Assad said "the relation is direct an din the depth with what is happening in Iraq. This is proved by investigation snot by analyses. Investigations show that big part of them are not linked to 'al-Qaeda' or anybody else. Most of them were affected by the situation in Iraq, some by television, and other s went there and were back with very different thought.

He said that sometimes they mix between hatred towards the Americans who kill the Iraqis and those extremists who break from religion and tend towards militancy, and sometimes they believe they have to fight anyone who is not like them. He added that al-Qaeda issue is an intellectual current, and subsequently most of those 'Takfiris' are groups…either individuals separately or small groups with nothing to link among them except 'takfiri' thought which is affected by what is going on in Iraq, and most of them seek to get money to finance their operations because they think they are fighting for Islam. 

The President said when Syria was in Lebanon, al-Qaeda was there but in a narrow form, adding that the events of Dnayyeh in 1998 is a clear prove of that. "Many of the groups we chase escape from Syria into Lebanon because it's the nearest and easiest as the roads there are mountainous. No doubt that part of the information with us proves this truth," the President asserted".

On the domestic issues, President Assad said reform is to go with maximum speed but with the least losses. What is most important is that we are moving ahead with great strides, and the prove to that is that in 2000 growth was zero, nowadays according to the International Monetary Fund the growth in the non-oil sector is 5,5 per cent. Without reform, we couldn't have reached such rate in terms of economy.

'We have to define the priorities of reforms, that is the economic situation…our whole concentration is on this direction. The political circumstances in Syria and around them the pressures of last year as well as the clear and direct obstacles from America and some European countries to the reform process in Syria…all of these mean that we were able to achieve reform despite these circumstances." 

As for the 10th five-year plan for development ratified by the Syrian People's Assembly, the president noted that it will represent Syria's vision in future, "but the implementation depends on the executive plans that will be suggested and agreed on, and I stressed on that in one of my recent meetings with the government," he added.

" It depends on creating a dialogue among all related sides in Syria particularly trade unions, associations and organizations in addition to the state and chambers" the president said, noting that "sometimes we agree on a public principle but don’t agree on the mechanism; particularly when we find that the mechanism may affect the interests … so we should not be optimistic that we ratify the plan, it is not enough, we should adopt mechanisms for dialogue".

Answering a question about whether concentrating on security as a main priority, particularly under the current circumstances, will affect the reform process in the country, the president hoped it will not affect the process.

He added that frequent terrorist attacks in Syria necessitates dealing with this fact as soon as possible and making it as a priority. "I can not say that this matter is above economy, food or the people's financial situation, but I put it in balance with them," the president added.

As for Arabism and Islam, the President underscored that "Arabism and Islam integrate each other … after Syria and most Arab countries got their independence there was a Western plot to target Arabism and Islam so connecting the two topics is so important to realize stability inside our societies," the President noted.

"Some talk just about Islam as if there is no Arabism and this is dangerous because Arabism gathers different sections existed in our societies … so I always stressed that Arabism is not a chauvinist idea but a civilized one" he underlined, noting that the Arab society is based on two topics Arabism and Islam.



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