Fifty-three replies to 53 questions posed over two full hours spent in his office in the Raouda Palace in Damascus, which the Syrian president, Dr. Bashar Assad, answered fully and with a serenity of spirit. My son Saër was present at the encounter and took part in the interview. The road to Damascus having remained open even during the time when relations between the two countries were not what they might have been. No one could imagine that everything would change between Beirut and Damascus, as happened on April 25, 2005. With much bitterness, we recalled the errors, without exculpating anyone. Everyone committed faults, Lebanese and Syrians. As well as those who approved the Syrian intervention in 1976 and rejected, because of the fact of interests, all that came out of the Riviera Hotel, Anjar and Damascus. On the road from Damascus to Jdaidet Yabous stands a statue of Youssef al-Azmé and a recollection of the martyrdom of Maissaloun, which recalled to our minds memories of the French mandate and words of opposition to that mandate from the mouth of the Maronite patriarch, His Beatitude Antoine Boutros Arida: "I have shown interest in the Syrian question", he said on September 10, 1935, "because Lebanon and Syria are joined in a unity of language, morality, traditions and economic interests". And political ones, we might add. Understanding and encounter are the destiny of the two independent and sovereign countries. Lebanon and Syria: privileged relations and understanding despite all that has happened. The enemy is the same, and resistance to the enemy is a national and patriotic duty. Peace in the Middle East can only be a just and comprehensive peace, drawing inspiration from international relations. With it, Lebanon will recover portions of its national territory still occupied, in addition to those liberated by the Resistance. With it Syria will recover the Golan down to the last handspan of its land and the last drop of its water, as President Hafez Assad demanded. President Bashar is walking in his "father’s footsteps". The man is unshakeable and has in no way been affected by the isolation and the boycott great powers have tried in vain to impose on his country. They have had to annul this option. Either Moammar Kadhafi or Saddam Hussein, the West told him, covertly targeting the regime while publicly denying that it was trying to do so. Syria succeeded in surmounting dark days and in resuming its presence in Arab, international and international forums while remaining faithful to its commitments and its friends. The young president received the family of "Dar Alf Leila wa Leila": Al-Bayrak, Al-Hawadeth, Monday Morning and La Revue du Liban, for the interview, the text of which follows:

  FRATERNAL RELATIONS WITH LEBANON 

Melhem Karam: Mr. President, let me first of all present my condolences for the victims of the cowardly attack perpetrated on the road in Damascus. I implore Almighty God to grant the martyrs his great mercy, and to bring vitality to the wounded.

 President Bashar Assad: Thank you. I have always warned against terrorism and affirmed over the past few years that mistaken policies towards our region ensured fertile soil for terrorism.

But that doesn’t discourage us. We shall continue to pursue our internal and external policies opposed to occupation, violence and terrorism. This attack impels us, once again, to join our efforts to combat the scourge of terrorism and ensure the conditions of a peaceful life for all citizens.

Monday Morning: Mr. President, Syria, under your leadership, is at the intersection of the problems of the Middle East: of indirect negotiations with Israel; the Iraqi dossier and that of the Iranian nuclear program; and the position of Lebanon, uneasy despite all attempts and initiatives to reconcile disparate viewpoints. Without omitting the developed relations between Damascus and Turkey; and the relations with Paris, now renewed, and those with Washington, still mistrustful. Let’s begin with the dossier closest to your heart, that imposed by destiny and history. Let us speak of Lebanon. 

President Assad: Our relations with Lebanon will remain fraternal, whatever happens and despite the circumstances of any kind or degree, naturally above all after the Doha Agreement, through which Lebanon moved away from civil war.

The most important thing I want to say is that Lebanon and Syria will remain brothers, and it cannot be otherwise. Brothers may pass through periods of misunderstanding and dissensions, but they do not cease to be brothers living in the same house. Our relations will therefore remain in this orientation and Syria will continue to support it in the way desired by the Lebanese.

 MILITARY DEPLOYMENT NEAR NORTH LEBANON 

Monday Morning: The Lebanese are disquieted at the deployment of soldiers near their northern frontier, despite the assurances of Army commander-in-chief General Jean Kahwaji following his contact with his Syrian counterpart, General Habib. Why this timing, and is the deployment linked to smuggling or to the passage of salafists to and from Tripoli, which you have previously warned of? 

President Assad: What happened was different from that. It was the Syrian chief of staff who contacted General Kahwaji before the deployment, or during the operation. The matter was dealt with in direct coordination with the Lebanese Army. It is illogical that there should be bad intentions, since coordination is established between the leaderships of the two armies. The purpose of the deployment was explained, being directly linked to smuggling operations, or if one prefers, to operations of infiltration and movement of terrorists between Syria and Lebanon. It is clear, from the intelligence obtained through our security surveillance recently, that North Lebanon has been transformed into a veritable base for extremism, which formerly came to us from Iraq, and which constitutes a danger for Syria. It is natural that we should take steps to protect our frontiers.

Add to that the smuggling of prohibited products, especially diesel fuel (mazout), which constitutes a hemorrhage for the Syrian economy, as well the crossing of the frontier in an illegal manner.

It is in this context that the Syrian units have been deployed on the Syrian frontiers. 

Monday Morning: Following the visit of French President Sarkozy to Damascus, coming after your own visit to Paris last July 14, there was a question of a new manner for Syria of dealing with Lebanon. However, you have begun again to receive, as in the past, Lebanese political personalities of the opposition: former Prime Minister Omar Karami, Talal Arslan, MPs of the National Syrian Social Party, the Amal Movement and Hezballah. Why this return to a practice which has been the subject of controversy?

 President Assad: First of all, there is no link between our relations with France and our relations with Lebanon, the latter being relations between two independent states based on bilateral interests. There is no relationship between Syrian cooperation with Lebanon and with any other country on the globe.

As for our reception of certain Lebanese personalities, we believe that after Doha and the new stage into which Lebanon has entered, especially with the formation of a government of national unity, the most important thing has been the visit of General Michel Sleiman, president of the Lebanese Republic, to Syria, which opened a new page in relations between the two countries. It is natural that, when speaking of a new page, relations with Lebanon should include the whole country, the institutions, the parties and political forces. Relations with these forces does not signify interference in domestic Lebanese affairs and, therefore, cannot be the subject of controversy.

Naturally, whoever does not want good relations with Syria does not look favorably on these visits. Nevertheless, I want to stress the fact that these visits have not been interrupted. The difference now is that they have been given a media cachet. They will continue for those who wish to come to Syria.

 DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS?

 Monday Morning: Will the exchange of diplomatic relations really open a new page in relation to the old vision of Lebanon as an independent and sovereign state, or will it rather be a tactical game aimed at keeping doors open to Paris?

 President Assad: Syria posed the subject of an embassy in 2005, three and a half years before the reestablishment of relations with Paris. We cannot expect to improve our relations with Lebanon if these must pass through a third state. There will not be a true improvement, but only a temporary improvement, one of pure form.

We must therefore deal directly, and it is in this framework that the subject of diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus comes. An embassy does not signify for us the recognition of Lebanon’s independence since we have always recognized it. We don’t believe that there is a relationship between the opening of an embassy and the recognition of Lebanon’s independence. The establishment of diplomatic relations aims to open a new page between the peoples and not between governments.

Such is our vision of independence, and diplomatic relations are a new page between the peoples, not between the governments. Between us and Lebanon there is a contact of peoples. There was not in the past a black page that now needs to be made white. I don’t consider problems to be a black page, but a summer cloud which has been dispelled. 

SYRIAN HELP FOR LEBANON 

Monday Morning: How far, Mr. President, are you ready to help President Michel Sleiman rebuild institutions and achieve reconciliations?

 When President Sleiman visited us in Syria and when we met together in Paris, I expressed Syria’s total support for him as president, and for the Presidency of the Republic. That is a traditional support in regard to Syria. We told him that relations with all institutions must be carried on through the Presidency of the Republic and the head of the state. This requires that these institutions should be effective if we are to cooperate. Such is the rule.

When a clear Lebanese vision to resolve any problem is determined, Syria will be able to help Lebanon, so that Syria will not be transformed into a part of the problem, but rather be a part of the solution. We are keen to receive any proposal that enjoys the unanimous support of the Lebanese. At that moment, and only then, will Syria be able to act in Lebanon’s favor. 

Melhem Karam: A stable and reinvigorated Lebanon can be an economic lung for Syria. Why have privileged relations been limited since 1975 to the political and security sphere at the expense of the economy and development, to the extent that there is not a single mixed enterprise or project? The only indication of joint economic activity are the Syrian workers in Lebanon. This is far from the complementarity envisaged in Europe through coal and agriculture. 

President Assad: What you say is exact, and it expresses a negligence on the part of institutions in Syria and Lebanon, especially since the end of the civil war in 1990. Economic relations are very important in linking peoples together. The fraternal relationship exists, as does the relationship of blood and of families… All this is established between Syria and Lebanon, and a kind of complementarity began to appear between the Syrian and Lebanese markets. The Lebanese market lived in large part from Syrians who spent their money in Lebanon, and vice-versa. Recent circumstances have weakened that relationship, which has not taken a clear institutional form. It is a relationship of peoples, and if it were otherwise, it would have been institutionalized in the 1990s, and this would have favored the emergence of mixed markets.

At one point there was a question of a joint private airline, but the idea never came to anything because of the events. This economic aspect was a subject of my discussions with President Sleiman. I repeat that this depends on the Lebanese government, which is urged to show its desire to develop prosperous relations between Lebanon and Syria. I can tell you, in the name of the Syrian state, that we are ready for this kind of relationship, which would reach the level of the mixed projects that exist between Syria and other states.

How can we establish privileged relations with Lebanon when such projects do not exist? We are waiting for the Lebanese state, through its various institutions, to show the desire, the will and the administrative mechanisms to bring about such mixed projects.

 AID TO HEZBALLAH, BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF THE LEBANESE STATE 

Saër Karam: How do you reply, Mr. President, to accusations in regard to your support for Hezballah at the expense of the Lebanese state, as also for the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements at the expense of the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority? Might this stance be a card in your hand, although it may have cancelled other political cards?

 President Assad: In regard to the Palestinian side, our relations are excellent with Hamas and with President Mahmoud Abbas, who has visited us twice and will visit us again soon. If we were supporting Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, our relationship with President Abbas would not be good.

That applies as well to our relations with the Resistance in Lebanon, more precisely with Hezballah, over the last three or four years. There was then a state in Lebanon headed by President Emile Lahoud as well as, at various times, prime ministers Rafik Hariri and Salim Hoss. We supported the Resistance and, at the same time, the Lebanese government, but not at the expense of the power of the state. We have never thought of backing the Resistance in order to weaken the Lebanese government, which would have served neither Lebanon nor Syria. We support Lebanon as a whole and the Lebanese state, which represents the whole Lebanese people, as well as the government of national unity.

 THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR ISSUE 

Monday Morning: What are the results of the mediation you have undertaken at the request of President Nicolas Sarkozy with your Iranian ally in regard to the military side of its nuclear program? Do you believe that the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency accusing Iran may serve as a pretext for the West and Israel to unleash a war against Iran?

 President Assad: The United States is now, with or without a pretext, waging wars, its option being military, not political. I don’t see any permanent link between pretexts and acts, and I don’t expect peace with the American Administration during the last months of the presidential term. The possibility that this Administration may undertake some kind of sabotage in the region is there, and we are taking this possibility into consideration. Iran is doing the same.

On the question about mediation, we are concerned about weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation in the Middle East, in addition to application of the convention on the non-proliferation of these weapons in this region. We have signed this convention, as Iran has. This convention gives every state the right to have a nuclear reactor for peaceful uses. The problem does not lie in possession of a reactor or enrichment, but in a lack of supervision. The West has gone beyond the question of supervision and is demanding a halt to the whole operation. It’s a question of agreeing on a mechanism that will reassure the West, which has no confidence in Iran as to its desire to possess peaceful nuclear energy. We discussed this matter with our Iranian brothers as well as with President Sarkozy during his visit to Damascus.

During the month of Ramadan the Arab and Islamic world witnessed a peaceful phase in political activity. After the Fitr feast, the results of the talks will appear, and we will be informed of the response of the West and of Iran.

 NO SYRIAN NUCLEAR REACTOR 

Monday Morning: Mr. President, reports and rumors have been spread about the Israeli piracy against the Kobar position in the Syrian Desert. What exactly were the airplanes targeting, and were the installations targeted intended for the manufacture of nuclear products despite the IAEA chief Baradei’s recent announcement?

 President Assad: Mohammad El-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], has denied the existence of nuclear installations or of a nuclear reactor, as the IAEA has also. This naturally corresponds to what Syria announced earlier several times following the Israeli raid. It’s a question of a military position, and we didn’t say it was a civilian position, but it has never been a nuclear site. The statements of Baradei have settled the matter. Before the visit of the IAEA’s inspectors we were giving continuous explanations and after the inspectors took samples from the river and the building itself and performed analysis and tests, none of the Israeli and US pretexts and lies turned out to be true. 

Monday Morning: How can Damascus deal with many complex dossiers at the same time: negotiations with Israel through Turkish mediators; an allied relationship with Iran and Hezballah; entente with France; solidarity with Lebanon, its causes and crises such as the "international tribunal"? How do you manage the multi-faceted diplomacy without altering the constant principles of your governance and regime? What are your aspirations?

 President Assad: You have spoken of constants and it is very important to hold fast to them. One of our most important political constants here is independence based on principles. Syria’s constants are based upon our firm knowledge of our country’s position and its importance as well as the geographical, demographic and geo-political relationship with its environment. We know that any side or country in the world wishing to have a role in the region should deal with Syria either partially or completely, one way or another. From this standpoint, the countries dealing with the various issues that you have just mentioned have understood this reality and they understand that we know this reality, which is of utmost importance. Other have understood this, but they are turning a blind eye to this fact. The most important is that this becomes clear to everybody. We understand this reality and accordingly we have been able to play a role that appears to be contradictory to some, but in fact its aspects are interlinked since all the issues are linked with one another. We can see that issues appear to be contradictory but in fact there is an innerlogic that binds them together. Some countries have understood the relationship between the different issues: the relationship between peace and terrorism; the relationship between Iraq, peace and terrorism; the prevailing situation in Lebanon, peace and terrorism; the relationship between all these things and development as well as the repercussions of poverty on the European countries. All these issues are interlinked. What we aim to achieve is stability, peace, prosperity, development and further improvement in living conditions and reduction in poverty. These are our general aims.

Monday Morning: What would you tell the Lebanese especially those who are boycotting you because of the tribunal of international character, which is supposed to begin sitting in 2009? Have you any fears about it, as well as about the politicization of its verdicts? Will it be a new Nuremberg, or is time working against the tribunal, with the risk that it may be torpedoed?

 President Assad: It is a Lebanese and international tribunal. But if this tribunal wants to cooperate with Syria in its investigations, it is important to establish a convention with the Syrian judicial authorities. We are an independent and sovereign state, and any Syrian citizen is subject to justice in his own country. This is the only way Syria can have a relationship with the tribunal.

In any case, we have no fear of the international tribunal, since we are protected by our sovereignty. If this tribunal is professional and is aimed at identifying the authors of the assassination of [former] Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that will serve Syria in a direct manner, since it is the state that has been the most affected in its image and reputation because of the Hariri affair.

In any case, I say to the Lebanese: Bet on your own country, not on the exterior.

 SYRIA, ISRAEL

 Monday Morning: How far have the negotiations with Israel reached? Have priorities been defined, or is it a question of preliminary contacts? Some observers say that Tzipi Livni, who has succeeded Olmert, like Ehud Barak, is inclined to negotiate with you while at the same time hardening her position with the Palestinians. What is your analysis?

 President Assad: The indirect talks with Israel have not yet reached any result. We are at the beginning of the road, and the halt in the negotiations was caused by the ministerial crisis. We need to wait for a stabilization of the domestic situation in Israel. As for the intentions ascribed to the Israeli officials, we can’t take them into consideration since they say one thing and do something other than what they promise. Our experience tells us that we have to wait and see what they’re going to do. Will the new prime minister be in favor of negotiations on the basis that we have previously agreed on and which stipulate the full return of the Golan Heights, or will there be new conditions for these negotiations? When a new premier is elected we will see.

Melhem Karam: Sources close to intelligence services (Aman) claim that Syria is making trials of "Skod C" missiles and has reached agreement with China and North Korea in order to improve their effectiveness. Is there any relationship between these claims and American and Israeli pressures exerted on you?

 President Assad: American and Israeli pressures on Syria have never ceased. We for our part are continuing to develop our armed forces. This is a natural right as long as we are in a state of war and as long as the Jewish state has not evacuated the occupied portions of our territory, and it attacks whether it is Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. That is why we cannot say that we are in a stage of peace.

On the matter of raising this question at the present time, we don’t know if Israel believes that the indirect talks signify for Tel Aviv that peace has been restored and that the Golan has been returned to Syria.

 Saër Karam: How far would you be perturbed by the return of Netanyahu to power, as to the possibility of a war against Syria and Hezballah? If a confrontation was imposed on you, would the Bekaa Valley be one of its theaters, or would it be limited to rockets? What scenarios have your strategists devised in this respect?

 President Assad: We’re not betting on names of people who might accede to leadership posts in Israel, Netanyahu or any other. As far as we are concerned, there’s no great difference between one candidate and another. They may be in disagreement on questions of internal policy, and we haven’t heard anything from Netanyahu about the Golan so as to evaluate his position. We won’t go into the game of names of people in Israel; we’re looking at what they intend to do. That’s the criterion of the talks now going on in Turkey.

As for the military aspect, and not to go into details, the scenarios are many and have no end, since the region is vast and all possibilities are envisaged. Syria is ready to confront them without going into military details.

 Monday Morning: How do you judge the process of rearming the Israeli army, which has linked its command structure on the ground with American satellites, and the launch of the Arrow anti-ballistic missile? Is this a form of blackmail against Syria?

 President Assad: If we wanted to surrender, we would have done so a long time ago. We will not do so now. This indicates that Israel is thinking in one way or another of perpetrating a new attack when the circumstances permit. As for blackmail, it doesn’t affect anyone in the region.

DEVELOPMENT OF SYRO-TURKISH RELATIONS

 Monday Morning: How do you explain the qualitative development in Syrian-Turkish relations, which have moved from mistrust to bilateral coordination, in addition to the increasing exchanges of visits? How far does Ankara aspire to be another hub in the region to defend the interests of the Sunnites in the face of Iran and its Shiite role?

 President Assad: First of all, relations between Turkey and Iran are developing in a permanent and positive way. The role of the two states is not based on a confessional or religious position, but on the political and geographical position of the state.

As for asking why relations between Syria and Turkey have developed, the reply is clear. The two states became aware that their situation had deteriorated when they served as fuel for international conflicts in the Middle East. When we decided to be masters of our own decisions in order to better serve and defend our common interests, everything changed.

From another standpoint, I should point out the credibility of the Turkish state and government. All its institutions generally have acted in a friendly manner and at no time promised one thing and done the opposite. Syria for its part takes the same course of action towards them. The credibility of the Turkish president and prime minister has led to this neighborly and friendly relationship.

 SYRIA, SAUDI ARABIA

 Monday Morning What interest has Syria in prolonging the rupture with Saudi Arabia, especially since the kingdom has its weight in the region and the world? Is it not necessary that we establish a bridge between Damascus and Riyadh, since what brings the two together is more important than what separates them?

 President Assad: These are clear words and I approve of them. I can affirm to you that Syria and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have no interest in remaining at odds since that has negative repercussions on the Arab situation in general.

Efforts are being made in the right direction, and we hope they will be successful. In regard to us, there is no point of disagreement with any other Arab state. I hope you will address this question to our Saudi brothers.

 Monday Morning: Why has Paris failed in its honest mediation between Damascus and Riyadh? Is your alliance with Iran the reason? Did the events of May 7 in Lebanon have a negative consequence? Can we say the same thing in regard to the rupture with Egypt?

 President Assad: The situation with Egypt is different. We have posed the same questions without receiving a reply.

Regarding our relations with Iran, it is an important country, but our relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in no way signify that we conduct our relations with it at the expense of Arab states. We have not exchanged Arab states for Iran, and we don’t consider it in this light.

Our relations with Turkey are very strong, and this helps stability in the region, not the reverse. What is the benefit for Arab states of a negative relationship with Turkey over eight decades? We have all lost out. When relations are better there is gain for everybody. The same applies to Iran. We should establish excellent relations with all neighboring countries. We Arabs do not dialogue much. Relations can be good at the level of the summit, but not on other levels. We in Syria have no barriers in our relations with Arab states. We are open to all initiatives. I was in touch with President Hosni Mubarak some weeks ago to present my condolences following the landslide accident in which there were victims. Let’s be frank: relations, which are supposed to be good, do not now exist with Egypt as they should. We have no problems with them.

 Monday Morning: You are waiting for the exit of President Bush from the White House in order to take initiatives. But if his successor is John McCain, the Republican candidate, he may pursue the same political and military approach to the region?

 President Assad: It is difficult to imagine that a new president, no matter to which party he belongs, would decide at the outset of his Administration that he is going to fail. For in fact, the present Administration has failed in every one of the matters it has approached, from Korea to Iran, Syria, the war against terrorism, Iraq and Georgia, as well as in terms of America’s internal and economic situation. Is it possible for a person, even if he follows the same political line, to pursue the same policies, which would doom him to failure from the start. I believe that it is logical to say that whoever comes to power cannot follow the same path. The question here is to what extent they can distance themselves from this path. The difference between the Democratic and the Republican candidate is another issue. The principal issue is the military aspect of this Administration. Whoever comes to power and adopts the same stances will definitely fail. The USA is a powerful nation and it can cause destruction, but will it succeed in the end?

 DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS BETWEEN BEIRUT AND DAMASCUS

 Monday Morning: Will the establishment of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria and the inauguration of the two embassies take place by the end of the year?

 President Assad: We’re moving in this direction. The preparations may require several months, and we are supposed complete them by the end of the year.

Monday Morning: Will your expected visit to Lebanon take place before or after the exchange of diplomatic relations?

 President Assad: My second visit to Lebanon, where I went in 2002, is not linked to the opening of the embassy, but to the improvement of relations between Lebanon and Syria.

Monday Morning: What about the demarcation of the frontier and Syria’s role in recovering the Shebaa Farms?

 President Assad: There have been positive exchanges of correspondence between us, and the Lebanese government has proposed a demarcation of the frontier that would not take in the Shebaa Farms, since they are occupied by Israel. We cannot carry out a demarcation of the frontier in an area which is occupied. The problem is not between Lebanon and Syria; the problem is posed by Israel. The Israelis have suggested it and some in Lebanon have adopted it. When the occupier leaves, we will be able to discuss the question with Lebanon.

The demarcation of the frontier between our two countries commences from the Akkar plain and finishes at the Shebaa Farms. Limiting this operation to Shebaa would be doing a service to Israel. Since the occupation exists we have no problem in demarcating the borders in other regions because this is in Syrian and Lebanese interests. This depends on the cooperation of institutions in both countries.

 ARAB SOLIDARITY

 Monday Morning: As current president of the Arab summit, are you planning to revive inter-Arab solidarity, and how can this be achieved?

 President Assad: The Doha Agreement expressed an aspect of this solidarity as it is one of the most important agreements and solutions to a big and dangerous problem on the Arab scene. But a solution has been reached without international interference. We can call this Arab solidarity.

Palestinian reconciliation, for which we made great efforts, and the visit of President Mahmoud Abbas fall in this context. Why? Because dissensions, be they in Lebanon, Palestine or elsewhere, lead to differences among the Arabs. We must therefore settle dissensions in order to defuse the crises that compromise inter-Arab relations. I am making visits, but they do not ensure Arab solidarity, which remains partial and temporary. The problems need to be resolved in a definitive manner.

 Monday Morning: Might Syria’s relations with Iran be affected by a possible peace treaty with Israel?

 President Assad: Not at all. First of all, Iran has said twice, after the beginning of the indirect talks with Israel, that it supported any effort by Syria to recover the occupied portions of its territory. And Syria and Iran feel great respect for each other. Iran does not interfere in our affairs and vice-versa. We support it and it supports us. I should note that our relations with Teheran have not regressed since the beginning of our indirect talks with Tel Aviv.

Monday Morning: How do you evaluate the results of the four-party summit you hosted in Damascus with President Sarkozy, Emir Hamad of Qatar and Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan?

 President Assad: It was an important summit because it brought together the presidency of the Arab League summit, the presidency of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the presidency of the European Union and the state that plays the role of mediator in favor of peace. These countries will have an important role which is much wider than their regional frontiers, at least in the next few months. These states are working in favor of peace and stability. Peace signifies the peace process in the Middle East, basically the Syrian path, which doesn’t neglect the Lebanese or the Palestinian tracks. Need I recall that stability is linked to peace? Here we look to the problem of Darfur, a grave problem. We reached points of view on these subjects which were very close, and that’s why I can say that the summit was a complete success.

RUSSO-SYRIAN RELATIONS

 Monday Morning: When most of the countries of the globe stood beside Georgia or adopted a wait and see attitude during the events in the Caucasus, Syria declared its stand at the side of Russia in this conflict, which some justified by the fact that the United States and Israel, Syria’s principal adversaries, incited Georgia to behave as it did. Was Syria’s stand the result of the traditional friendship between the two countries? And how do you see the future of Syrian-Russian relations, especially since Russian weapons were one of the results of your visit to Moscow? 

President Assad: In regard to Syria’s position towards Russia, I recall that Russia has always stood beside us. It was therefore natural that we should stand beside it in the first crisis confronting it. Most of the countries allied to the United States have said that this war was, directly or indirectly, provoked by America. Can one imagine that Georgia would unleash a war against Russia of its own accord? This is something that requires no analysis. That is why we opposed this war, and it was natural that we should be against the side which started it. This corresponds to our principles.

In regard to our relations with Russia, they were warm and they have become more so. As for weapons, they are the object of contracts concluded between us and Russia. It is natural that during our visit, we should have raised military questions and the means of reactivating cooperation between us, especially since Russia has become independent since the accession of President Putin to power. Russia continues on the same path, and it will reinforce its historic relationships with its old allies.

 Monday Morning: Political differences among the Palestinians and the abortive attempts to reestablish contacts between the various factions have accentuated the painful situation and frustration in which the Palestinian people live. Do you think this is the consequence of the dispersion of Arab ranks, and what can Syria do as current president of the Arab summit to remedy this situation?

 President Assad: First of all, they are paying the price of internecine Palestinian divisions even more than that of inter-Arab dissensions. We acted to remedy this during the summit, and before the Mecca Agreement we played a fundamental role in this regard. As I have said, we await the visit of President Mahmoud Abbas to see what we can do. We cannot allow this Palestinian situation to continue since it has repercussions on all Arab countries.

SYRIA AND THE ECONOMY 

Monday Morning: Two years ago Syria began to take practical measures for a progressive transformation into an "economy of the social market". What is the role of the state in this economy, and does it guarantee equity in the distribution of property? Is this a Syrian innovation and has it given tangible results? 

President Assad: It is applied in a number of countries, Germany among them. This economy is supposed to prevent monopolies and profiteering so that the poor, or those of limited income, are not excluded from the social and economic framework. The role of the state is exercised in the social sphere, and there are special funds to protect the financially-disadvantaged. Various funds have been established to benefit the various levels of society. We are now at the beginning of this experiment and in a transitional phase. We have been confronted by the [economic] siege and regional events that are not favorable to investment, in addition to other difficulties such as the increase in international prices which have harmed poor countries in general, and we have been affected by it.

Monday Morning: Mr. President, it is well known that you are deeply concerned with renewing Syria’s national life, improving the economy and raising the people’s living standards. Statistics show an improvement in economic indicators and the rate of growth. But Syrian citizens sometimes say they have not yet felt any tangible results of this policy. How do you reply?

 President Assad: It’s a challenge confronting the state. We can’t say the citizens have not benefited and that the advantages of this policy have not been generalized. The big challenge lies in finding how to enable the largest part of the population to benefit. This depends on the development of the mechanisms of governance and the struggle against corruption.

Monday Morning: Mr. President, the struggle against corruption has been one of your top priorities. Has your campaign against it been a success?

 President Assad: We have taken wide-scale measures to combat corruption and we have had great successes in this respect. But the true reform will be achieved when we improve administrative practices, and at that moment corruption will diminish. It is a permanent war against corruption in favor of the law, order and the public interest.

NO TO PRIVATIZATION

 Monday Morning: According to Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the contribution of the private sector to the gross domestic product in 2007 rose to more than 65 percent. Do you expect a great increase in the size of the private sector and a decrease in the public sector? Will Syria have recourse to privatization? 

President Assad: The private sector has taken great steps forward, but there has been no fallback in the public sector, which has a fundamental role in political and economic terms. It must continue in order to safeguard political and economic stability in Syria. That is why the matter of privatization will not be broached in Syria. And if we place the political aspect to one side, we can say that it is not suitable from the economic point of view. We envisage a development of the public sector while at the same time supporting the private sector. Practical measures have been taken recently to develop the public sector.

Monday Morning: During the siege that the Franco-American side tried to impose on Syria, it was proposed to Your Excellency to choose between Saddam Hussein and Moammar Kadhafi. How do you see your position today?

 President Assad: That depends on whom we’re being seen in relation to [the president said, laughing]. We address people according to their understanding and advise them to learn from their failures. And their basic failure is not having known how to read reality, either because they can’t read it or because they don’t understand it. They should have someone teach them to read.

Monday Morning: Where does Syria stand today in regard to what is happening in Iraq?

 President Assad: We stand beside those who strive for the unity of the Iraqi land, and everyone should be in favor of the Arabism of Iraq. But as you know, there is no American desire to support the political process and give the government the authority needed if it is to undertake a wide-scale political action and bring the Iraqis together.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS AND ARAB MONEY IN AMERICA

 Monday Morning: Some observers say that the economic and financial crisis in the United States is not directed against the American interior but against Arab money in America. What is your view?

 President Assad: There have undoubtedly been large Arab losses evaluated in the billions of dollars because shares have lost so much value.

What interests us now is the result. The holders of capital know how they have lost their money. We have suffered harm from an economy which, according to some observers, has lost the confidence of many investors in the world. This impels us to invest more and more in our own region.

 Monday Morning: It is a question of reconciling governmental support for the citizens with support for certain economic sectors. The government has removed part of the subsidy on the price of fuel and compensated for this by payments in cash. Does this procedure seem valid to you, and does the government intend to make it a general practice?

 President Assad: We began to apply this policy last May and it’s still early to ascertain the consequences or to judge this experiment, which is a new one. When negative aspects appear, modifications will be necessary.

Monday Morning: Mr. President, you have promulgated laws and decrees and taken decisions aimed at attracting external investments and enhancing the favorable climate for those investments in Syria. Do you believe you have succeeded in this, and have the investments been on the level of your expectations in regard to their dimensions, nature and targets?

 President Assad: Yes, we have undoubtedly had achievements, and the figures confirm this. The obstacles are no longer the same as in the past. But we are confronting other obstacles that we must eliminate them in various areas in relation to administrative measures. Most of the investments come from Arab sources and they won’t come without an atmosphere of peace in the Middle East. Our preparations and predictions must be in this framework.

Monday Morning: Mr. President, we thank you for your welcome and your patience. We would like to end with your views on the Syrian media, which has definitively improved in regard to form, subjects and good management, especially after the private sector was introduced into it. There are dozens of private magazines and newspapers as well as radio and television stations. Are you satisfied with the present situation of the Syrian media, and what do you envisage for the future?

 President Assad: When you speak of a process of development, it is not permitted to be satisfied with what has been achieved. Satisfaction causes you to stop midway on the path while everything around you is changing. There are now private media in Syria, and the public media have begun to evolve. There is movement forward which can be slow or rapid. But it is certain that we are progressing in this respect.

Monday Morning: To return to the subject of Lebanon, Mr. President, there has been a great deal of talk in the Lebanese street about prisoners, persons who have disappeared or been incarcerated. What can you comment on this subject?

 President Assad: A mixed Lebanese-Syrian commission has been working to resolve this subject. Most of those who have disappeared are not in Syrian prisons for having broken Syrian laws. Prisoners are incarcerated to make compensation for a fault committed. We have persons detained belonging to various nationalities, but it’s necessary not to confuse the prisoners with the disappeared. The matter of the disappeared goes back to the time of the Lebanese war, and they want to hold Syria responsible for the people who went missing during the war. Anyway, the mixed commission is studying this matter in cooperation with the Lebanese and Syrian sides. This subject presents no problem, and when results are obtained, they will be made public.

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