''Tel Aviv has to understand a clear message: peace is the only thing to protect Israel. If Israel thinks that it is exposed to attacks, it is the peace only to protect it and not war,'' said His Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad to the Turkish 'Hurriyet' Daily, November 8, 2009, pointing out that what Israel and Lebanon witnessed of military means was not in the Israeli interest; but proved to them that they rushed to failure.

''The main source of the problem is Israel's occupation of others' land; there is the occupation of the territories, naturally reactions from the citizens would appear. Israel should withdraw from the territories, which it occupied, and sign a peace agreement.'' added His Excellency President Al-Assad.

In reply to a question about nuclear weapons and Iran, His Excellency President Al-Assad said: ''We have a clear stance in Syria: we do not wish to see any nuclear bombs in the Middle East Region; there is no need for this. Of course, we also do not want to see the nuclear weapons, which Israel possesses. I do not think that Iran is seeking to possess a nuclear bomb; it does not need that. Iran demands her right to the technology level only. Syria and Turkey are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and every country has the right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and to enrich Uranium. I reiterate once more that there is no need whatsoever for any party in the region to possess a nuclear bomb.''

In reply to question about the Syrian-Turkish relations, H.E. President Al-Assad said: '' Syria and Turkey are two sisterly Countries; with this in mind, we have moved forward. There are perfect bases at the grassroots level; that is way we have made success in reaching to the fast change in our relations,'' citing the importance of Turkey's good relations with Israel as well as with the United States as to realize the much awaited Mideast peace and stability.


The full text of the Interview in Turkish

Edited & Translated by

Mohamad Abdo Al-Ibrahim

Rome, Italy, November 8, 2009.



Sunday, November 8, 2009


DAMASCUS- Hürriyet


Turkey cannot play a significant role in the Middle East peace process if the country does not maintain calm relations with Israel, says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an exclusive interview with daily Hürriyet. Meanwhile, Israel should understand that peace is the only security, he says

Turkey should have good relations with Israel if the former wants to facilitate Syrian-Israeli negotiations, said Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in an exclusive interview with daily Hürriyet at the presidential palace in Damascus. “Otherwise, how can [Turkey] have a significant role in peace process?” Al-Assad said, when asked if an improvement in Turkey-Israel relations would benefit Syria.

In response to a question about whether Al-Assad could imagine the situation from Israel’s perspective – as a small country squeezed in between Arab states – and whether a just solution for Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis is possible, he said: “The source of the problem is the Israeli invasion of others’ land. If there is an invasion, people react. Therefore, the thing to do is to withdraw from the occupied land and sign a peace treaty.”

There is one clear message that Israel should understand, Al-Assad said: “Only peace can protect the Israelis. If they believe they are defenceless, it is not war, but peace that can protect them. The experiences in Lebanon and Gaza showed them that they cannot reach a conclusion by military means and moreover, that these means will drag them to failure.”


‘No’ to nuclear weapons in the region

On the subject of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, Al-Assad said Syria’s position is clear: “We do not want to see nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” He said there is no need for nuclear weapons in the region and that, naturally, Israeli nuclear weapons are included in this statement. But Al-Assad does not believe that Iran is producing nuclear weapons. “They do not need these weapons. They only want the technology, which is their right.”

About Turkey’s relations with the European Union, Al-Assad said Syria has never thought that Turkey should be a part of the Muslim world alone, which would itself be harmful to Muslims. “The worst thing for a country is self-isolation. No one can isolate you, but you can isolate yourself. We will become stronger as we become more open. That is why I support relations between the EU and Turkey,” he said.

Al-Assad also said that he supports Turkey’s relations with the United States, even though his country does not enjoy strong relations with Washington, as Turkey can help bridge diplomatic gaps for Syria as a friendly neighbour.

When asked whether Turkey helps Syria concerning the United States, Al-Assad said: “Turkey [was helping Syria] before Syria even asked because Turkey is a country that pays attention to the reality [in Syria]. This is to the benefit of Syria because it gives the impression that other countries should recognize Syria as well.”


What Turkey means for Syria

Moving beyond the fact that Turkey and Syria are neighbours, Al-Assad said it was necessary to improve relations, as between two sisters, in response to a question about how the two countries were able to draw closer together. Al-Assad also addressed what Turkey means to Syria, both now and in the past.

“It takes more than a couple of years to see relations improve. There is a solid base at the grassroots level in both countries. If you look at the reaction of the Turkish people against certain incidents, in particular what has happened in Gaza, you see that the feelings of both sides are the same. There is rage against what the Arab people experienced,” he said.

The president said that he; Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül and former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer have had an active role in improving relations. But grass-roots support played an important role, he said.

In addition, Sezer attended the funeral of President Hafez Al-Assad in 2000, establishing contact that remained active. Also, while serving as prime minister, Gül visited Syria, inviting Al-Assad for a return visit.

PKK members can return like ‘Muslim Brothers’

In response to a question about a previous statement by al-Assad, who stated that members of the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who are of Syrian origin may return to Syria, Al-Assad said they would be prevented from standing trial. “Rather than an amnesty, what is on the agenda here is a policy that will prevent these people from being recognized as individuals who should be tried in the courts,” he said.

Al-Assad said the process in Turkey is similar to that which Syria experienced regarding members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization.

“They came to Syria without amnesty,” he said. “We allowed them to return. ‘This is an issue belonging to past. They do not need to go to court to be found guilty or not guilty,’ we said. You have two means at your disposal – one is legal, one is political. We did not send them to court because we did not identify that there is a crime. We know that these people left Syria to participate in different groups in other countries. And naturally, we are against this politically.”


 Friendly chat with confident Syrian leader

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mehmet Ali Birand

 I met Bashar al-Assad in 2003 for the first time. He lost his father and three years have passed since he came to power. He was a 42-year-young head of state. The whole world was curious as to whether or not he would fulfill his duties. After an experienced leader like Hafez al-Assad, would he be able to keep his country going amid Middle Eastern politics that are full of intrigues? 

This young president was sitting in front of me together with Ertuğrul Özkök, the editor-in-chief of daily Hürriyet, on Thursday. His temporal region had some grey hair and he just turned 48, but he was self-confident and full of energy, knowing what he wants to achieve.

We started this talk with the leader of the latter Syria at the presidential palace, full of huge pompous halls, with a personal chat. He looked around and said, “That’s why I don’t reside here. I come for work and for official occasions. We live in the city in a four-room, humble apartment.”

When Ertuğrul asked him if they are concerned about security, he smiled and replied, “The best security is provided when you live among neighbors that you know.”


The secular state

The conversation turned to his wife, who does not wear a headscarf and I had to ask: “You both are believers, why does your wife not cover her head? Did you not ask her to?” His answer was very interesting.

“I never thought about it. This is a personal matter. Faith, belief and religion are in your head. Real Islam is inside of you not in your cloths. The base for religions is good relations among people.” I did not ask this question to make a reference to the headscarfed wives of our leaders. My purpose was to understand how Mrs. Assad's attitude toward the increasing “cover up” fashion in the Muslim world.

As a matter of fact, President Assad said the Islamic world is increasingly becoming conservative (i.e. pious) and underlined that Islam is a religion that needs to be felt on the inside. So, how do you feel about what the al-Qaeda or Taliban does in the name of Islam?

He cut short by saying, “Theirs has nothing to do with Islam. Islam does not accept terror.” Bashar Al-Assad’s understanding of secularism is limited to the state. The state needs to be secular and people should be able to exercise their religion freely. By saying, “In Syria there is an important Christian minority. They are one of the chief pillars. To protect this pillar means to protect the balance,” he stated his view very clearly.


Turkey is changing its direction

I asked him about an argument that is very popular these days. “It’s been put forth that Ankara is moving away from approaching the West and turning toward the East. Do you think Turkey is really changing its direction? If it does, does this please you?”

He started out by saying, “Yes, Turkey is changing its direction,” and that this was a healthy change. “Turkey’s view of the region is changing. We are changing, the West used to separate us from each other. Now we have entered a period in which we need to solve internal issues in the region,” he said.

Bashar Al-Assad told us that Turkey and Syria will, step-by-step, aim for the sky and instead of empty targets, they will plan the next step as one is completed. He asked, “Instead of building one little economy doesn’t it make more sense to build one large economy?” He said he aims to accomplish region-wide projects.

He made us feel the excitement about projects to be worked on by Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Is there a desire to form a monetary union or a common market like Europe between Turkey and Syria?

“Let’s not hurry. Let’s go step by step. Let’s take one step and stop to look at the result, and then take another step. Let us look if two separate small economies or one large economy is better. This is what we want to do. Let’s think of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. We want to create a joint economic region, make joint giant projects. We are calculating how we can connect the Red Sea to Europe and the Mediterranean. The prosperity of those four economies working together is apparent. We are building a joint future.” 

I asked the head of state: What does Turkey mean to you? “Turkey’s support is very important for us. We have full trust. As an example, without even us demanding it, Prime Minister Erdoğan explains us in Washington; he conveys our views. This is very important. Besides, the role he played at peace talks with Israel was also very important. Because of this, he is now at a point where he can easily speak on our behalf.”


PKK members can go back to their villages anytime

Assad attaches great importance to Turkey’s approach regarding its Kurdish citizens and views it as an important step toward peace in the region. So how is the pardon for PKK members of Syrian origin going to work? Is there going to be a presidential pardon or pardon by law? Assad said there are about 1,500 Syrian-origin members of the PKK.

“As long as these people do not commit a crime they are welcome to return to their villages. There is no need for a trial because they don’t appear to have committed a crime. And there is no need for a presidential pardon because a pardon is only announced after a trial. At this stage there is no obstacle to the return of these people.”

I have talked to many heads of state, presidents and prime ministers but I have never seen one like Bashar Al-Assad, who is so comfortable, so confident and who treats you like a friend.

The only thing I wish for is that the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria does not have an accident, like many rapprochements in the Middle East in the past.

The reason my hopes are up this time is that Bashar Al-Assad is realistic and Turkey is down to earth.