President Bashar al-Assad said that Syria has never set any conditions on achieving peace in the Middle East. We always say that Syria does not have certain conditions at all ... when Syria speaks about the bases for peace, it refers to the necessity of implementing Security Council resolutions and Madrid terms of reference, he told the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera on Thursday, February 14, 2002. and published today. Israel is the only country that refuses to talk about Security Council resolutions and the United Nations, and it refuses to adhere to the international will, the President added. Syria is ready for peace now, he said and there can be no peace without the full return of the Golan Heights with no exception.


On events that happened on September 11 in the United States, the President said: Certainly it is a feeling of sorrow for the victims. The same feeling you could have when you see Palestinians being killed whether as individuals or as groups

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Mr. President: You are welcome in Syria. The Interviewer: Thank you for great hospitality.
Mr. President: I heard a lot about your newspaper. I have not met any Italian journalist, but I have met with a lot of politicians and parliament members, especially after the 11th of September which ignited European movement especially in the Middle East. Of course the problem lies in the lack of communication, not communication in the technological meaning, but in the human meaning. That is what we need; we need to have more dialogue, more communication. I do not think we are going to start this communication now between the Syrians and the Italians because we have a history of two thousand years, a common history. You know that Syria gave the Roman Empire eight Popes and five emperors. When the Pope came to Damascus last May, I told him we were watching your pilgrimage.
Do you mind if I carry on in Arabic? because I lived for only two years in London from 1992 to 1994, and it has been 8 years since I left there, so my English has deteriorated a little bit. And I was a doctor, I was not a politician in England.

The Interviewer: (laughing) It does not seem that your English has deteriorated!
Mr. President: So I said to the Pope that your pilgrimage was not completed until you visited Damascus because Christianity, although it appeared in Palestine, we protected and then went to the world from Damascus. But he said to me Syria was part of the Roman Empire. I said to him زit is the contrary because we gave the Roman Empire eight Popes and five emperors.

I feel that this communication and contact are very important with the entire world, and I could see that Europe is entitled to play a very important role in that regard. Of course, the southern European countries are more capable of playing this role. I meant the Mediterranean countries of course, as I said, due to the similar social nature and the historical relations also. Of course, I thank you for the topics you have mentioned that you would like to talk about, but you can feel free to talk about anything you like.

The Interviewer: This is very kind of you.
Mr. President: Is it your first visit to Syria?
The Interviewer: It is the first but not the only because I plan to come over again because I was pleased. I came here in 1983, so I spent my first week in Syria at that time. Syria is a beautiful country, a beautiful place.
Mr. President: We have a very common history. You know Caracalla path in Rome! Caracalla was one of the Syrian Emperors. I am ready to hear your questions whenever you want.
The Interviewer: If you do not mind, Mr. President, we start with the last developments, let us say those related to Iraq. You know there are, in a certain way, different messages arising in the region, but the other day, apparently, the possibility of an attack against Iraq increased. Of course, the problem for Syria now is not the same as it was in 1990 when you were with the allies against Saddam Hussein in order to liberate Kuwait. Now, the relations between Syria and Iraq are much better than they were at that time. So, what are your expectations in case something like this happens?
Mr. President: First, I would like to check some of the idioms. When we took the position in the 1990s with the allied forces, we took a stand in support of liberating Kuwait and not against Iraq. The other point is that there is no animosity between Iraq and us. On the contrary, our relations with Iraq at the peoples level have always been good. In the past there were political differences, but for quite few years we have both gone beyond these political differences; we have overcome them. But our stand towards what you have just mentioned is not linked to all these issues. It is linked to something larger, to the international framework. It is linked to concepts that are being now talked about at the international level. These concepts are going perhaps to decide the future of the world in the short and long run, especially the concepts that had been talked about for the last fifty or sixty years like democracy, justice, human rights and other idioms that are linked to these. The question that should be asked is: Is there any justification to strike Iraq? Is striking Iraq a part of combating terrorism as the entire world has been talking about this issue now? Is striking Iraq going to achieve justice and human rights for people who are deprived of their rights, or is it going to bring more injustice and lack of human rights?
I think striking Iraq is contradictory to all these concepts of democracy and human rights. What happened in the 1990s is very different from what is happening today. There was an international consensus about what had happened then, and there was a legitimate and legal handling of what was going on related to international law, to the United Nations Charter and to social values that reject an aggression against another country or another people. What we are witnessing today has nothing to do with any international law or international charter. Today, all the European officials, with whom we have met, are, without exception, against striking Iraq. And of course all the Muslim and Arab countries, without any exception, are against striking Iraq. So, the most dangerous thing now is that are we living in a world where only one opinion prevails? It is very natural for us as a neighborly country to Iraq and as an Arab country, to sympathize with the Iraqi people and to be against striking Iraq. But I am talking about the issue at an international level and from a far-reaching perspective. I think that for the last thousands of years the world has not been dependent on a unilateralist perspective as it does nowadays. This means that we are really entering into the unknown, and striking against Iraq is a very dangerous step of entering into this unknown.

The Interviewer: But if this happens, what would be your reaction? What will you do?

Mr. President: I am not going to talk about the political reaction, whether it is by Syria or by any other country. You know that the political stand would be to condemn or to reject, and I do not think that these expressions have any real value in them now. I think what is more dangerous than the political stand is the popular opinion that is going to formulate itself after such an action. The results of such a popular opinion do not necessarily appear immediately, they might appear after a long time. In fact, if they were to analyze the event of the 11th September, they probably would have found that it is the result of an accumulation of many factors, some are tangible and others are intangible, an accumulation of deep-rooted hatred caused by popular anger the root causes of which are political, economic and social. I believe that strike against Iraq, or any similar thing to be done in the future without any measure, or without any criteria, is certainly going to lead to turbulences in the world the form and range of which are difficult to predict.

But I think it is, most often, going to take the security shape. And I do not believe it is in the interest of the United States to create more tension and turbulence in the world for which it might have to pay in the future.

The Interviewer: Mr. President, do you believe that Bin Laden is dead or alive?
Mr. President: The problem is not whether Bin Laden is dead or alive. The problem is that there is a certain reality that is aggravating hatred and tension among peoples. It is this reality and its causes that should be addressed instead of looking for certain persons.
The Interviewer: We heard your speech in the last two Arab summits, in Cairo and in Amman, and really you have the wisdom of the late President Hafez al-Assad and your approach was really remarkable. I wanted to introduce the problem for the forthcoming Arab summit; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is in the corner, some say that his political life is over and others do not agree. Against him are the Israeli Prime Minister, the Israeli Army, the radical Islamists and even the moderate Palestinians. A big part of the Arab world is silent, or was silent until a certain stand, whereas your country was always extremely critical towards Arafat. Apparently, there are no hopes for him as a leader. What do you foresee about Palestine? And do you believe that the Palestinian Authority is over?

Mr. President: You are asking me about what do I see. In fact, what I see today is what we saw in 1993. In 1993, when the Oslo agreement was signed, President Hafez al-Assad said that each paragraph of the Agreement needs another agreement. And this is actually what has proven to be true. Nine years since then and we did not see the peace the agreement wanted to achieve. Syria said at that time that these agreements are not going to bring peace to the region, and today we all see there is no peace in the region. Syria said, then, that these agreements are going to lead to more turbulence and this is what we witness today. So, what we see today is based on what we saw then, and things are still as we saw them then. When the foundations are weak the building is bound to be shaky no matter how grand or beautiful it might seem. Therefore, I believe that things are going to remain as they are or they are going to get worse. Our stand in Syria was always based on issues rather on persons. And therefore we have always expressed our opinion about certain issues and not about certain persons. We have always said we are with or against this solution. Hence, we do not say that we are with Arafat or that we are against Arafat. Our measure for getting closer or farther from any person is how close or far he is from the real issue. But to go back to the other part of your question: زIs the Palestinian Authority over ? we have to explain the word زauthorityس. It means that you have certain mandate and you can do certain things as an authority. it could be within a geographical area or during a certain time that this authority is able to exercise its role. Hence, we have to assess this word during these nine years. Is it an authority over a territory? The question is where are the borders? Is it an authority over a certain sovereignty? There is no sovereignty there. So the real authority is in the hands of Israel, and what did Israel leave to the authority to do? Probably only to manage some crises! And therefore our vision and concept of the authority is different from people who believe that there was a certain Palestinian authority and that now it does not exist.

The Interviewer: What do you think will happen in the Arab Summit which will be held in Beirut? Mr. Arafat is elected as a leader of the Palestinians, will he attend the meeting? And in case he stays in Ramallah, who will represent the Palestinians?

Mr. President: Certainly they can send any official if Arafat is not allowed to be there. This is up to them.

The Interviewer: But an official from where? From Tunisia, Mr. Qaddoumi, or someone from the territories?

Mr. President: I really cannot assess this. This is up to them. But it seems all this has to be approved by the Israelis anyway.

The Interviewer: So, it would be Israel who decides at the end if the Palestinians will attend or not?

Mr. President: Definitely!

The Interviewer: Mr. President, Syria has said many times that it is interested in resuming the peace process towards a possible agreement with Israel on the conditions that the Israelis withdraw from all the Golan Heights. If I understood well before, you were talking about a return to the spirit of 1990. Are you ready, Mr. President to talk with Israel again? And do you believe that the current Israeli government would be ready to start the suspended talks with Damascus?

Mr. President: I am going to go back to the word conditions. Israel, in its statements with senior officials, always says we reject Syrian conditions. In fact, Syria has never set any conditions, and we always say that Syria does not have certain conditions at all. When Syria speaks about the bases for peace it refers to the necessity of implementing Security Council resolutions and Madrid terms of reference. These terms of reference were not invented by Syria, rather they were American ideas and they became international resolutions once they were approved by the international community. And due to the Arabs desire to reach a genuine peace, they adhered to these terms of reference. Hence, our conditions are the conditions of the international community and they stipulate the full return of the Syrian rights. The international community is the one who met in Madrid and decided what are the terms of reference for peace. Thus, the terms of reference are agreed upon by the international community and we are part of this international community and we do not live outside it.

The entire world, with the exception of Israel, has supported these terms of reference. Israel is the only country that refuses to talk about Security Council resolutions and the United Nations, and it refuses to adhere to the international will. As an example for this, I shall mention that upon his return from Madrid conference, Yitzhak Shamir said to the journalists that he will make the peace process drag for ten years and this is actually what had taken place.

Now, when we say we want negotiations, negotiations for us are the means and not the end in themselves. When we started negotiations in 1991, we started because we were convinced that peace is going to be achieved through an honest broker of the negotiations and through a true adherence to the terms of reference that were announced in Madrid. Ten years from that time we can say that the peace process has suffered an absolute failure. Is it possible to relaunch future negotiations without analyzing the reasons that had led to this failure and without avoiding these reasons? This means that we could go back ten years from now and say why did the peace process fail, and we would have wasted twenty years.

We, in Syria, like things to be clear. We do not like to address any issue in a vague foggy environment. We have important things that we would like to do to our country and we have no time to waste on issues which do not lead us anywhere. The mistake that was committed by some European countries and by the United States is that they believed that negotiations by themselves could bring peace.

But, I think that what is more important than negotiations is how do you conduct these negotiations. Who are the parties that are entitled to play an honest mediator among the conflicting parties?

To go back to your question Is the current Israeli government ready for peace now?. During my meetings with senior European and American officials, I was always asked this question: Is Syria ready for peace now? Of course, I used to explain to them the points I have just made, and I would ask them .do you think that Sharon is ready to work with us for peace?, they would say No. And I would say to you the same thing. So, we all agree on this. Sharon, due to his nature, is very far removed from peace and this is something that is announced and not something that we expect or think about. When he expressed his regret that he did not kill Arafat twenty years ago, it is a clear expression that what he likes to do is to kill and not to make peace. I do not think a person like this could speak about peace except as a tactical move or as a way to hide his truth. Therefore, in brief, in principle, we are ready for peace and we do not care who is there in Israel. But there are clear terms of reference and clear rights, and these should be the end goal of negotiations. There can be no peace without the full return of these rights with no exception.

The Interviewer: Mr. President, let me ask something about the discussions that took place in Geneva; President Hafez al-Assad met at that time with President Clinton. Apparently, the agreement was very close but something happened. What were you told about this?

Mr. President: You are going to find it odd if I tell you that this summit was not prepared for at all by the Americans. President Clinton called President Hafez al-Assad and asked him to meet in Geneva because there are important and positive things he wanted to tell him. Of course President Hafez al-Assad found it strange why did not the Americans send an envoy to prepare for this summit.

They insisted on convening the summit because as they said the issue is serious and Syria is going to be happy and satisfied because all its requests will be met. In fact what was proposed by President Clinton in Geneva was for Syria to sign a peace agreement after giving up part of its territory. Of course President Hafez al-Assad refused, absolutely refused to give up any inch of the Syrian territory. The funny thing is that President Clinton was surprised to find President al-Assad rejecting giving up part of the Syrian territory although President Hafez al-Assad has always publicly stressed that we shall never give up an inch of our territory. We found out later that some people in the American Administration had prepared for this with the help of some Israelis. They were the ones who deceived President Clinton. They said to President Clinton that President Hafez al-Assad is now ready to sign peace at any price and he is now ready to make this concession. And therefore President Clinton, at that time, paid the price of being deceived by those surrounding him.

And therefore I said to a member of the Congress who came to visit me lately that if the peace process is going to be handled in the same way it was handled by the workteam of President Clinton, you are going to reach the same results. This is quite simply the story.

The Interviewer: Mr. Assad, Syria was elected as a member of Security Council. Your representative in the Security Council has compared the 11th of Sept. event to the destruction of Palestinian houses in Gaza, and this comparison drew a lot of criticism. What is your opinion?

Mr. President: Practically it is a comparison. A comparison between two things you see and each one invokes certain feelings in you. What is the feeling that you had when you saw what happened on the 11th of September?! Certainly it is a feeling of sorrow for the victims. The same feeling you could have when you see Palestinians being killed whether as individuals or as groups. In fact, the comparison is a comparison in the amount of pain and the magnitude of this pain is related to the psychological making of the person, it is related also to the environment in which he lives. It is related to the culture, to ones own culture. It is related also to the accumulation of painful experiences.

Now, if we are to compare what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territory, it is not necessary that it is happening in one hour, but the accumulation of what Israel has been doing since 1948, the accumulation of killing the Palestinians. We, as Arabs,. when we see a Palestinian killed we feel all the pain that we have been experiencing during the last decades. If you ask any Arab person, he would not say to you that what happened on the 11th of September is more painful to him than what have been happening to the Palestinians for the last fifty years. I am going to give you just one example, what happened in Sabra and Shatila by Sharon in 1982? During one night, thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered in Sabra and Shatila. For us, as Arabs, and for any Arab citizen, this is more painful than anything else on earth. We heard a lot of criticism to this comparison that was made. This takes us back to the first question when we talked but democracy. The West always wanted the third world countries to be democratic and to have freedom of speech and express their opinion, but when we express our opinion and what we truly feel, they dont like it. In my opinion this is part of the distorted globalization that we were talking about. For example, we understand cultural globalization to be an interaction and communication among all people, but they understood it to be the prevalence of one culture over all cultures in the world. We understood economic globalization to be an open opportunity for all economies, for all countries to grow, while they understood it to be one economy controlling all the economies in the world. And now they want to globalize even our pain and feelings; they want us to feel the pain the way they feel their pain, and this is impossible. Thatصs why we are going to express ourselves the way we feel whether they agree with us or they don’t, it is our right.

The Interviewer: Mr. President you have just mentioned Sabra and Shatila. We have learnt a lot about what was committed by the Christians with the help of the Israelis and that Elie Hoabiqa is one of the people responsible for the massacre, and Mr. Hoabiqa had at some point in time relations with Syria, what is your answer?

Mr. President: In fact, the one who supervised and initiated the killings is Sharon personally. Close to the camp where the massacre has happened, there is a football playground and Sharon was there leading the operation, and the bulldozers that demolished the houses were Israeli bulldozers, but it is true that they had sent some Lebanese groups to carry out the massacre in an ugly manipulation of the civil war that was raging in Lebanon then among the conflicting parties. But the one who planned and the one who superseded and the one who gave the orders is certainly Sharon personally. And you know that Sharon was asked to resign from the Israeli government at that time because he was deemed responsible for the massacre. So his responsibility for the massacre is documented in Israel and does not need further evidence.

The Interviewer: Mr. President, soon you will celebrate two years in office, you received many greetings and compliments also, and we have heard that you became a father and I think you are very happy. So you spent two years as President of the Syrian Arab Republic, I would like to ask what were your hopes two years ago and if you see any of them being realized now?

Mr. President: In fact, when you are presiding over a country you have hopes, but your hopes are for the country, for the people. We can say that these are probably strategic hopes for the nation. Generally speaking, to realize hopes at the level of a country you will never do it quickly, it needs time. But this is particularly true for countries who are in the process of development because they have more obstacles in the way than you find in industrially developed countries. Therefore, you have to build a road to realize these hopes; this road would have many elements to contribute to it such as good laws, searching for qualified people, upgrading the level of people who are working in the country, raising citizens’ awareness of how to participate in improving their country, the fact that would lead to the cooperation of all citizens in this operation, in addition to other elements as well. If you ask me, what have I achieved, I can say that I have achieved some of these elements. If I am going to say to you I have achieved some of my hopes, I will be unrealistic, except to say that these stages of building up the road are part of the hope as well. But even the great hopes you have might seem next year less ambitious because the world is changing so fast. But I think that the real assessment of this question should be left to the citizens and not to me as a president of the republic. Our hopes remain the motive that pushes us forward to work harder and to achieve more on this road. In brief, I can say that we have moved forward, and in all domains.

The Interviewer: For instance, just in brief, what have you achieved?

Mr. President: We had issued many laws in many domains. We started a large scale training of people in cooperation with the European Union in different fields. We started to have a greater participation of ordinary people to help the government and the state doing their work. We activated a real dialogue among Syrian people about the Syrian vision of the future. I am not a kind of person to consider the details to be the most important, I like to say to you for example we permitted private universities in Syria, and we allowed free press in Syria! Few weeks ago we started independent broadcasting stations. And there are many other details like this. But the final objectives for us are developmental objectives in the general sense of the term.

The Interviewer: Mr. President, his Majesty King Abdullah, and, I know he is a good friend of you, told me that he is full of admiration for you and for what you are doing. He told me that twice. Let us say that you are doing in your country a great job as King Abdullah is doing the same in his county, but your fathers, King Hussein and President Hafez al-Assad, let us say, had difficult relations or something more. But you and King Abdullah are friends, you have the same age more or less, so what has changed? Is it a matter of new speed of cooperation between the leaders in this region for instance, a new approach?!

Mr. President: If you go back to the relation between the Late King Hussein and the late President Hafez al-Assad we find out that it was a relationship that has a great deal of friendship and some period of tension and differences. These differences were always related to the issues that were at the table at that time, and the improvement in the relations, that you are talking about, started in the last few years of the life of King Hussein and the late President Hafez al-Assad. I think it is due to two reasons, first is that the hot issues in the nineties of the twentieth century were very different from the issues discussed in the seventies and eighties. Second, because the Arabs had great differences in the previous decades and then they found out these differences are not going to lead them anywhere, and that they have to reach agreement on issues. The good relation between me and King Abdullah, perhaps, has something to do with our proximity in age, and therefore we have similar visions regarding many issues. On the other hand, it is also based on the good relationship that the late President Hafez al-Assad and King Hussein enjoyed in the last few years of their lives.

On the other hand, I think that the new generations try to avoid the mistakes that were committed by previous generations with the aim of reaching better results.

The Interviewer: King Abdullah always speaks about human rights and you refer to the human rights many times Mr. President, but as you know very well that sometimes there are people accusing Syria of having a poor record of human rights, and despite the fact, for instance, I saw a figure extremely interesting that some years ago there were in prison fifty thousand political prisoners an now they are less than one thousand. So, I mean even the certain approach has been changed, but regarding the human rights, I know that there is something in your heart but you want to face this problem even because in Europe, as you know, we are insisting with Turkey as well. Turkey is going to reach the European Union one day, but the European Union is asking for the respect of human rights and what have been done. What would you do and what is your evaluation of this?

Mr. President: First, we say human rights, we can’t separate between the right of one person and the right of the society. Second, when we say the right of one person, it means his right to contribute to the improvement and development of the country, but he has no right to undermine the interest of his country. He has the right to abide by the country law, and he has the right to try and preserve the interest of his society not to harm the interest of the society. I think that societies have different concepts of these rights according to their cultural and historical developments. Therefore, the political prisoners you have talked about were imprisoned because there were circumstances that were difficult and they harmed the real interest of their own country. The large number of political prisoners that were let free was during the time of the late President Hafez al-Assad, because the circumstances have changed. But, you really cannot separate in any situation this case of these political prisoners from the cultural and from the political circumstances of the country and the region. Otherwise, we are going to ask one question if the next list of human rights is going to include the United States as a country who violates Human Rights for two reasons: The legislations that have been issued lately after the 11th of September which have provisions I don’t think that you see in third world countries. Second, for Human Rights and their international application. So, how could a Human right be applied internally but could not be applied at an international level? How do they speak about Human Rights in any Arab country and they do not speak about Human Rights in Israel? What about the right of the people who had their own territories occupied, whether in Syria, Lebanon or Palestine? All these elements, for us, are interconnected and you cannot separate them. But, the natural thing in the world is that there is no country in the world that would like to see its citizen in prison! I think each government would love to see prisoners set free. But how to create a reality that leads to that?! First, this has to be based on teaching the culture of accepting the opinion of the other. I think what we see now in the intentional arena is the exact opposite of this; it is a performance that stresses the single opinion internationally and inside every country. I think, Human Rights should be discussed in a different way, not through intervention in country’s domestic affairs but through creating the international circumstances to have better Human Rights for all people.

The Interviewer: I have a little question, do you think Mr. President that in the near future, in your country, there will be more political pluralism with many parties and more freedom of the legislations?

Mr. President: This is what we are trying to achieve in Syria and this is not new in our agenda. Since the 1970s when President Hafez al-Assad came to power, this was his first priority. But I think it is not correct to take the word pluralism as you take it in any other country that has a different culture and different circumstances also. I think it is wrong to bring experiences at the level of your society as if you were dealing with your computer, you give it certain issues and it gives you the results in a minute. This process has to be gradual, but with a clear objective in mind, and the only criteria in this is stability. You canot achieve development and prosperity in a country that is suffering from turbulent political circumstances. So, what you are saying is an extremely important objective for us, but we have to prepare the ground, and this is part of the road we have spoken about that we are preparing for the future.

The Interviewer: Mr. President, can I ask you something. Even with my personal experience I think that Syria sometimes had, let us say, lack of communication with journalists. I think that Syria has a strong stand that was not known to others. For example, you gave your support now to the campaign against international terrorism, but in fact your country was one of the first countries to highlight the danger of Islamic fundamentalists. You have the great experience from the past, do you think it was misunderstood in certain parts of the world? But given the cause that no one was explaining to the media what was your position. But coming back again to the past, with your experience of the past, do you believe that the current campaign against terrorism will solve the problem or not?

Mr. President: Let me go to the first part of the question. It is true that we did not do the job that we should have done by communicating our stand to the media but we did the job as it should be done by communicating it to the European and American officials. For example, the first lesson that we had learned from dealing with terrorism in the 1980s is that terrorism has no borders, and that terrorists are not related to any religion or nationality. In 1985 President Hafez al-Assad sent a delegation to visit Europe to ask them to define terrorism and to combat terrorism through convening an international conference on terrorism. But they did not pay attention to this at that time. Now, the entire world is asking for combating terrorism. As precisely you have said we do have an experience in this. But now in the west they are talking about Islamic extremism, and I think the picture is not clear in the minds of people. They are confusing three things: Islam, Islamic extremism and what they call in the West Islamic terrorism. Islam is like Christianity, like Judaism, it is a monolithic religion. All religion are moderate religions in the texts, and speak about love, tolerance and forgiveness. As for religious extremism, it is done by people who like to exaggerate their adherence to religion in their practices. And therefore they are locked in their mentality and their practices. Usually, an extremist person is far removed from rationale and closer to passions and emotions, while the moderate person is someone who enjoys more reason and wisdom. The terrorist person is someone who always wants a cover to take as a pretext for his acts. And therefore the terrorist would always choose the extremist rather than the moderate because it is easier to deceive the extremist than to deceive the moderate. So, the moderate person will be able to uncover this terrorist person and not fall as his prey. This is the most important factor that enabled Syria to control and end terrorism in the 1980s. The way we were able to overcome terrorism in our country is by giving support and increasing the moderate voices that are traditionally present in the country. Therefore, to be precise, to be an extremist does not mean to be terrorist as some people believe. But we do not encourage extremism because we think it is far removed from the moderate and real text of Islam. Therefore, the conclusion we can arrive at it is that moderation is the enemy of terrorism. Now, can we consider what is taking place as a combating of terrorism? No. Until now the operation of combating terrorism has not started. Now, there is only a military war against a supposed enemy whom we do not know. I think the Americans do not know who this enemy is! And the proof for that is that all the detainees, whom they call detainees, who had been interrogated did not give any evidence or clear information. But the other question is: Is this war going to help moderation or extremism? I tell you, it is going to help extremism. And therefore, this war is providing a more fertile ground for terrorism. We expressed our opinion that we support combating terrorism but we did not say we support the war. The war against terrorism is an ideological war but not a military one. And therefore, I have always emphasized the importance of supporting moderation because it is the moderate voices that can combat terrorism. We also say we have an experience in combating terrorism, and therefore we would like to contribute to combating terrorism through our experience rather than through the experience of others who had just begun to combat terrorism. I don't think we can allow them to lead us in a battle we are more experienced than them in it.

The Interviewer: In this last period we saw many young people, even women, who carry bombs in their bodies and every time we are astonished at that. If you meet with one of these young boys or women, what would you say to him to convince them that violence is not the right way?

Mr. President: I think this is one of the mistakes that governments or officials, who speak about this issue, are committing. They try to convince the entire world that a person who goes to die, he goes to die in response to orders that are given by his senior. When you are going to die, you are not thinking about his boss or about countries or about anything! I can briefly say that this frame of mind that takes people to die is the result of the accumulation of huge frustration and oppression that is practiced against the Palestinian people. So, whether the west agrees with them or differs with them, they are the result of Israeli terrorism against them. Western officials waste their time in condemning these people, what is it going to lead to? Do you think that a person who is prepared to die is going to care about condemnation or praise? Why don’t they go back to the root causes? Why donصt they get realistic and go back to the root causes? Why don’t they address the direct cause which is the oppression that the Israelis are exercising against these people? These people believe that if they don’t go to die in Israel, they are going to be killed in their own houses, because Sharon is coming to them, to their houses. So, what they want to say to Sharon is that we are not going to die alone, we are going to die with your own people, we are going to make some of your people die with us as well instead of being killed on our own. Therefore, we think, regardless of our own personal opinions, that the only solution is to address the real cause of this problem by exerting pressure on Israel to stop killing the Palestinians.

The Interviewer: Let me ask something Mr. President regarding Hamas. Yesterday, or two days ago, Arafat made a statement saying that during a meeting between late king Hussein and late Prime Minister Rabin, and President Moubarak of course, he addressed this question to Rabin: You know very well, that Hamas has not been invented by us. In the answer of Rabin, according to Arafat, is yes Hamas was our fatal mistake. According to Arafat, this was the answer of Rabin, I don’t know if it is or not, but anyway this is what Arafat was saying. So, my question is related to Hamas and even Hezbollah. Syria is always against the religious fanatics, but on the other hand has relation with Hezbollah in Lebanon and some relation with Hamas. You say that there is a deep difference between terrorism and fighting against the occupation. So, where is the border line? we asking for an international conference in order to define this border, but is it really possible to put it on paper?

Mr. President: First we said that we are against extremism, but I think that extremism is everywhere in the world and in all religions and We deal with all trends and with all parties. But this has nothing to do with Hezbollah, that is a different issue. Hezbollah is an Islamic resistance party. When you say resistance, it is a national duty, but the Islamic part of Hezbollah is not an extremist side at all as some people believe. On the contrary, Hezbollah has positive relations with all religious sects in Lebanon. You, in Italy, have, and in many other European countries, Christian democratic parties, and this means that they are not extremist religious parties. But, it has its relation with ideological main process, and this means that they are extremist religious parties. But they have religious ideology.

I would like to go back to the last part of your question. I think if we want to see where the borderline between terrorism and resistance, I think the border line is the rights of these people. Do you have a cause, do you have a right that you are searching for and trying to restore, or you don’t? But these borderlines would be more accurate the more these rights are well-documented and clear. And this becomes easier when these rights are related to territory that has certain geographical borders. Also these borders between terrorism and resistance are related to the fact: Whether you are the one who has started a terrorist act or are you defending yourself against terrorist practices as daily assassinations and demolition of houses. Some people in the West accuse the Palestinians of being terrorist. Israel has been there for the last fifty-four years and the Palestinians didn’t do what they have been doing since last year. So, what is happening now is a reaction to what the Israelis had been doing of massacres and terrorist acts for the last decades. And therefore it is a consequence and not a cause. The cause is Israeli terrorism and the consequence is the attempt of the Palestinian people to defend themselves, their society and people against terrorism. Second, those people who are being resisted by the Palestinians, are they on their own territory, are they on a territory that they have a historic right in it or do they have no right there? There is an international resolution that this territory belongs to the Palestinians. Thus, occupation is terrorism; the occupation of other people’s territory is a form of terrorism.

The Interviewer: But Mr. President, is it true that when there was the vote of the UN in 1947, the Arab World didn’t accept that partition, so in fact it was a mistake in a certain way, don’t you think so?

Mr. President: You can’t say at that time that it was a mistake. They started, the entire world was doing what they wanted to do earlier than 1948 since the beginning of the last century without going back to the Arabs. And the entire world dealt with the Arabs at that time by imposing something on them, they didn’t consult the Arabs. But we in all circumstances are speaking about the post-Madrid Conference. Since the launching of the peace process the entire world and the international community has agreed upon the same terms of reference and the same resolutions. But if we want to unravel the past it might be difficult of all the parties concerned.

The Interviewer: Let me shortly come back to Lebanon. You have deployed your forces in Lebanon and as you said you keep your promise that your army stays away from some fresh points in Lebanon, but when do you expect a complete retirement to take place? My question at the end is this: is it not better or could it not be better to have strong relations between two strong allies, then have this military presence?! You know even in the West it is better than us, you know disturbances or reactions, don’t you think that strong ally with Lebanon, between two countries, two countries with their sovereignty but with a very very strong ally could not be better?

Mr. President: There is no doubt that we don’t build our relations with Lebanon on the basis of the military presence. The relation has much more important sides to it than this. But the military presence in Lebanon had something to do with the civil war that was taking place in the seventies. And this was upon the request, the official request from the Lebanese, through the President of the Lebanese Republic at that time, Suleiman Franjyea, and from the Christian Front at tat time. And then another element came into the picture other than the civil war which is the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Of course after the 1990s and after the end of the Civil War, the situation in Lebanon became more stable, and also the reconstruction of the Lebanese army has gone further steps. And this has motivated Syria in coordination with Lebanon to do gradual re-deployment. Certainly, the presence is a temporary one, but I think the actual act of re-deployment is subject to a military factor and the conditions that influence this military element particularly the South of Lebanon and the Israeli situation. These steps are always done in direct coordination between the leaderships of the two armies.

The Interviewer: Briefly Mr. President, and before we talk about Italy and your coming visit, just to have a complete frame of the situation. You have an alliance with Iran in fact, but recently you are improving your relation with one of your foreigner foes, Iraq. So, don’t you see contradiction in it, and if you remember some months ago you denied that Syria broke the embargo letting 100 thousand oil barrels from Iraq to reach Mediterranean passing through your country. But others are saying this is not true, what is your answer to this?

Mr. President: First, as for Iraq, it is not our foe as you have mentioned in your question.

The Interviewer: I said foreign foe.

Mr. President: I think to be a foe is something more than what happened between Syria and Iraq. There were political differences. Let us say there were huge political differences at certain points. But there has always been, between Syria and Iraq and Iran points of convergence between each other. If we want to look only at the points of difference I agree with you that there is a contradiction, and at that I could have a point of difference with Italy, for example. What I want to say is that we, as human beings, decide whether it is a contradictory relationship or a healthy relationship through our calculation of points of difference or agreement.. But I think even Iran and Iraq directly started to improve their relationship with each other during the last few years. Therefore, I can’t see any contradiction because we are living in the same region and it is only normal that we should try to improve our relations with each other. I think the contradiction is to keep these differences and stick to them rather than to go beyond them and improve our relations. As far as the oil is concerned, we announced our opinion very clearly since the beginning of this issue. We said that we have an oil pipeline between Iraq and us which we are testing during the last year, and therefore when we say we are testing this pipeline, we are definitely testing it with oil not with water or with winds. And certainly the direction is from Iraq to Syria because we have no oil to send to Iraq. And I have said this to American officials. But this is a very old pipeline that has been there since the fifties, and when we had our political differences with Iraq, this pipeline was not used and it is poor pipeline. This is the reason that prompted us to say that we are going to build a new pipeline with much bigger capacity. And we were discussing things with countries in the region and with European countries about this pipeline. And we said that with this new pipeline with Iraq, we are going to be committed to UN resolutions and we were supposed to submit a request for a meeting that the UN should convene about this issue at the end of last summer, and then this meeting was postponed. And therefore, we are not violating any UN resolutions.

The Interviewer: Now Mr. President we come to the visit. I think that Syria is a country that we love very much, but it is, I think, a country unknown to us in terms of the general public opinion, so I think your visit will change a lot because even with your beautiful wife and beautiful child, so it will give the message of something important that is changing and even it would be a recognition of your efforts. So you are coming to a country that has almost strong relations with this part of the world, especially with Syria. You asked many times for a more effective role of the EU and of course of Italy in the Middle East, a role not only economic but political. Do you believe that the EU and the US can work together to stabilize the region finding the right way to build peace, or they will be operating in different ways?

Mr. President: You said earlier there is a message in every new visit, and you said that Syria is unknown to the West. I say more than this. I say that there was a big problem at one point in the world particularly between East and West. The West has devoted all the media and all technological means in order to define the East but it didn’t use all these resources in order to get to know the East as it is. And so the East knew a lot about the West but the opposite is not true. The first message I carry with me is to try and introduce the East to the West and to introduce Arab issues as they really are and not just to Italy because Italy is a close country that probably knows the East better than any other European country. But it is an important entrance to Europe also. Without this accurate understanding of the West to the East, we can’t really speak about a healthy role that Europe can play. This takes us to the second part of the question: Can Europe with the US play the role? I think they can, certainly they can. But this is subject first to the desire of these parties and to their ability of those entrusted with this role, and second it is also dependent on their accurate knowledge of the situation. And third, it is subject to the desire of the conflicting parties in this role and their trust in the cosponsors. I can say in the name of all the Arab parties, that there is a trust in the European Union, they trust the European Union. And it is clear for everyone that Israel rejects the European role. The reason is that the European stand is an objective one, the fact that Israel doesn't like. What is clear until now is that the United States doesn't desire Europe to play a role that is expressive of a European independent stand and of a European identity. Until now the role that had been given to Europe by the United States is to market American ideas, but has not yet been allowed to play a role of its own making. But even the American Administration doesn't have a clear vision of how to conduct this peace process. Thereof I can’t see that the circumstances are prepared for this role to be played unless Europe wants to play this role in an independent fashion, and this would have its own prerequisites.

The Interviewer: Don’t you think now that the US has started to realize that being in a corner without a possible solution or help they will ask, for the European Union?

Mr. President: I think if the American Administration is able to formulate one opinion, then they can probably have cooperation with Europe but you need first to have one opinion. This is what I have said to William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of the United States when he visited me in Damascus two months ago. I said to him: you are a group of administrations, not just one administration. And I said to him: each one of your administrations has a different opinion . So, I think that Europe has to choose one of these administrations to deal with.

The Interviewer: And what are you expecting from Italy, especially from this visit?

Mr. President: What I expect from Italy is what is expected from any successful visit by a president. There is political coordination but we need more political coordination. There is contact between two peoples but we need more contact between our two peoples. This could be through the cultural domain, the academic relations between universities and here we stress the necessity for a better Italian presence in our region. This could be done through tourist relations, in addition to economic cooperation and investment. Of course, this could be through the meeting of the two private sectors and then the two governments should issue the laws and open the road that could open the way for better economic relations between the two countries, in addition to cooperation between public governmental institutions in both countries.

The Interviewer: Do you know that our Prime Minister Silvio Berlisconi launched the idea of a martial plan, I mean a real economic strong intervention, let’s say, in the region, what is your evaluation about that?

Mr. President: If this martial plan is only economic, It is going to solve only one side of the problem. I think the issue should be developed on a large scale. This will embrace economy and social development in its cultural domain. And this will also embrace the political and the cultural domains. I think this will achieve stability in the Middle East region and in the Mediterranean region in general. At any rate, this is the issue that we try to discuss when we talk about the European Syrian partnership, which means a partnership for development and not just an economic partnership.

The Interviewer: Can I ask you just few questions that are very simple? Do you see the Internet?

Mr. President: Of course!

The Interviewer: Sometimes the idea to go to the cinema one evening to have a free time. Now you are a president, you can’t do it, Sometimes you regret you can’t do something special out of your role?

Mr. President: First of all, I don’t have the hobby of going to the cinema. But I like to meet people a lot. And I do that, I mix with people just as I used to do before I became a president, but less often because I have lesser time. My friendships are still the same in the past, they didn’t change, and this office is not a presidential office, it is my private office that I used to have before and I still have now. I didn’t change anything except time.

The Interviewer: And what is your hobby?

Mr. President: I do exercise a lot and I read a lot.

The Interviewer: What?

Mr. President: Mostly history. And I love to get to know new inventions especially about the computer and new technology, everything digital.

The Interviewer: Is there a book for Western readers that can explain well the relation between the Islamic world and the Western World?

Mr. President: Regrettably, most of the books, that are available now, are being written by non Muslims or Western people about Islam. I think it is very difficult for these people to give you a real idea about Islam and the Muslims as well. We are doing something different in Syria, we are trying to call from other countries to start conducting workshops and seminars about Islam and this is what we did with the Americans and the Europeans as well and we shall continue these dialogues with different countries in the world in media, academia, culture and business. I advise that direct contact, personal contact should be established. You might write things in a book that do not seen convincing, but when we conduct a dialogue, I think it is more convincing. I think that the Internet and the books and all these means of communication should not be a replacement of the human contact. But, I think, as a media person you can play a very important role through dialogue. I think the important point is that the Western media in general, and the American media in particular, should move from being a source of misinformation to be a source of information, and this is what we suffer from.

The Interviewer: We will try to do the best.

Mr. President: This misinformation might not be even deliberate. But if you want to write a well intended article about Syria and you are far away and you don’t know, it will probably be difficult to write a true story.

The Interviewer: But Mr. President, let me say that now is much better because your country is expressing itself. When you don’t express yourself, what is the problem? you hear the other. Let us go to the Syrians, there is no answer!

Mr. President: Of course we share that part of responsibility, there is no doubt about this. But, I can say that you are the more developed, you have more resources and more means. So, if we lack the means to do it, you should not lack the means. (laughing: you should work for us).

The Interviewer: Are you fond of some football clubs? No?

Mr. President: No.

The Interviewer: Not even when you were in London?

Mr. President: No.

The Interviewer: Do you miss your former job?

Mr. President: I can’t say that I miss my previous job because I used to work in a general domain which is medicine and now I am working in a general domain. Although I was working as an ophthalmologist surgeon, my main job was to bring to my country the new technologies and to try to develop, and now I am trying to do the same thing. Also I continued to do the same thing in more general concern of trying to up-grade the medical performance in my country. I am not a surgeon any more.
The Interviewer: Mr. President, thank you very much for your time, because for us as journalists and for my Newspaper this is a historic day and this interview is extremely valuable. Thank you.

M.Abdo Al Ibrahim

 

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