A New Partner In Syria?

By David Ignatius

Wednesday, December 24, 2008; A11

 DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar al-Assad says he doesn't want to send a message to Barack Obama, exactly, but to express a three-part hope for the incoming administration's Middle East policy:

 First, he hopes Obama won't start "another war anywhere in the world, especially not in the Middle East." And he trusts that the doctrine of "preemptive war" will end when George W. Bush leaves office.

 Second, Assad said, "We would like to see this new administration sincerely involved in the peace process." He hopes that Obama will back Syria's indirect negotiations with Israel, and he urges the new administration to pursue "the Lebanese track and the Palestinian track, as well."

 Asked whether he would mind if the Syrian track went first (a sequence that has worried some Syrians who prefer the ideological purity of following the Palestinians), Assad answered: "Of course not. Each track will help the other."

 Third, he says he wants Syria and the United States to work together to stabilize Iraq as American troops begin to leave. "We can't turn the clock back," Assad said. "The war happened. Now we have to talk about the future. We have to forge a process, a political vision and a timetable for withdrawal."

 In all three "hopes," Assad seemed to be looking for a new start with Obama after years of chilly relations with Bush. Assad said he knew little about Obama or his policies but has heard that he is more in contact with ordinary people than Bush has been, which, Assad contended, would give Obama a better understanding of America.

 Assad spoke in English during the 30-minute interview Monday. He was accompanied only by his political and media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. This time, in contrast to my interview with him in 2003, when Assad was often stiff and doctrinaire, he was loose and informal, breaking several times into laughter.

 Assad's easy demeanor suggested that he's more firmly in charge now. The Bush administration's attempt to isolate Syria has failed, even in the judgment of senior White House officials. That leaves Assad in the catbird seat, courted by European and Arab nations and conducting back-channel talks through Turkey with his erstwhile enemy Israel.

 Asked, for example, about reports that Saudi Arabia is seeking to improve its relations with Damascus because it sees U.S. engagement with Syria ahead and fears that "the train may be leaving the station," Assad laughed.

 "Maybe it has already left the station," he said. But he vows that he is ready to receive any emissaries. "I have no problem with the Saudis. We would like good relations with every country in this region."

 

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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:

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His Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad pointed out that the North of Lebanon has become a dangerous base for extremism against Syria, reiterating the Syrian ever preparedness to provide support to Lebanon, in the form the Lebanese want.

" The North of Lebanon has become a real base for extremism; it poses danger for Syria," said H. E. President Al-Assad in an interview with the Lebanese Al-Hawadeth Magazine; pointing out that the Doha Accord has driven Lebanon away from the brink of civil war.

Regarding the International Investigations into the assassination of Former Lebanese Premier, Rafiq Hariri, H. E. said: "The uncovering of the assassination crime against Premier Hariri does serve directly Syria," pointing out that this issue is an international and a Lebanese matter; "An exchange of the embassies does not mean the recognition of the independence of Lebanon; hence we ever recognize the independence of Lebanon," underlined H. E. President Al-Assad.

In reply to a question regarding the recently carried terrorist attack in Damascus, President Al-Assad said: "I have always warned against terrorism, asserting that the wrong policies regarding our region do create the fertile soil for terrorism," calling for the rallying of every and all efforts as to eradicate the epidemic of terrorism realizing secure life for all.

"Every party or state who want to play a role in the region should pass through Syria," asserted His Excellency President Al-Assad noting that Europe could play a pivotal role , not to mention the fact the Europe could also help the USA, as far as the objectivity needed for in dealing with the region issues.

In reply to a question, President Al-Assad noted that the Palestinians are paying the price of their divisions; noting, in reply to another question, that the Americans are not interested in pushing forward the political process in Iraq, and that the US approach for handling the Middle East files is a military one based on war, and not a political one.

Regarding the Syrian-Iranian relations, H. E. President Al-Assad reiterated that they are not and would never be at the expense of Syria’s relations with the Arab Countries; and that they help the stability of Middle East, and would never be influenced, if Syria were to reach to an agreement with Israel.

In reply to other questions, H. E. President Al-Assad lauded the Syrian Turkish relations saying "Turkey is faithful to her relations with Syria,"

President Al-Assad excluded the possibility of privatization in Syria, pointing out to the measures taken as to combat corruption, which have achieved success.

  

Edited & Translated by

Mohamad Abdo Al-Ibrahim

Rome, 30,September,2008 

  
  

 

 

 

 

 

 Interviewed by the Iranian TV, September 17th, 2008, His Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad said: “The Syrian Iranian relations are very strong and solid. The strategic relations binding Syria and Iran have not been created through the agreement following the Iranian Revolution between President Hafez Al-Assad- may his soul rest in peace- and Imam Khomeini; these relations have been established as a result for objective things and in accumulations for these relations leading to the establishment of the standing strategic relation between both countries. The Revolution in Iran announced at the outset its stand by the Palestinian Cause, contrary to the Iranian previous stance, which had strong relations with Israel; a stance perhaps closer to the Israelis more than to the Arabs, the natural neighbors for Iran,” citing the increasingly joint ventures,  oil projects and would be market  between Syria and Iran, recalling, further, the Syrian stance by Iran during the unjust war of eight years against it.

 “Iran has always supported the Palestinian Cause, Arab Right, and the Syrian Rights; has stood against the Israeli aggressions against the Palestinians, Lebanese and against the Syrians,” added President Al-Assad pointing out to the independence of decision- taking by both Syria and Iran, based on the interest and principles, as member states of the Islamic Nation; reiterating “We do not belong to those states which build temporary, transitional or circumstantial relations. We do have our principles, and interests; thus the factors binding Syria and Iran are increased and more solid day by day,” reiterating the would be ever strategic partnership between Syria and Iran notwithstanding whatever schemes or pressures.

 “We have to be the makers of our future and by our own hands,” underlined His Excellency the President, citing the importance of the standing multifaceted cooperation and coordination among Syria, Turkey and Iran, voicing the hope to expand it to include other countries like Iraq, for example; citing, further, the partnership with Venezuela , and Malaysia as far as  joint ventures with Syria.

 “The Syrian –Iranian strategic relationship has proved its importance for the region during the past decades. The real results have appeared during the recent decade; that is the victory of the Resistance in Lebanon and the steadfastness of the Resistance in Palestine following the Intifada, which began in the year 2000. The real results have also appeared through the foiling of the underway schemes or those planned since the 80’s, under implementation now for our region. Of course, the schemes were not fully foiled but partially so; had it not been for the strategic cooperation among us, Syria and Iran, the conditions in the region would have been worst.” outlined His Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad citing the continued failure of such schemes and plots.

 President Al-Assad underlined the need for the bolstering of the Arab-Iranian relations citing, as example, the big reciprocal and joint contributions of the Arabs, Turks, and Persians to the past Umayyad State, Ottoman as well as Persian Empires.

 In reply to a question regarding the European role, His Excellency President Al-Assad cited the ongoing efforts exerted by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France as to restore the French role, saying: “ We are interested in having the beginning for divergence between the European role and the US role, such as  what we are observing as far as the dealing with presented issues; we want to see a European official telling us that we have the right to restore our land fully…” expressing the view that we, however, do not expect the West to be closer to Arabs more than to Israel.

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Assad: Syria's Position towards Resistance Solid

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stressed that abandoning the Resistance was not a Syrian interest, noting that Damascus position towards the Resistance is solid and consistent.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Al-Manar TV from Damascus, Al-Assad confirmed Syria had no desire to abandon the Resistance. "Syria's political discourse did not change, and will not change until Israel's occupation changes," Assad emphasized.

Assad denied France has suggested that Syrian should stop its backing to Resistance movements in the region, mainly in Lebanon and Palestine. "The issue is very clear; we don't see any interest in abandoning the Resistance. Moreover, our position towards the Resistance is fix and solid. It never changed," Assad said.

Al-Assad reiterated the necessity to abide by the dialogue strategy in order to reach stability in the region, but he noted there was a fear that some international and regional or even Arabic sides that wouldn't favor the dialogue path.

"The dialogue course wasn't adopted in a many Western countries who were adopting the isolation policy as well as the intimidation strategy. Some of them is even adopting a war policy," Assad highlighted. "It's just lately that new tendencies started to emerge," he noted, adding that "it is not possible to say that we are in ideal circumstances for dialogue between states but we are attempting to found the bases of such dialogue." He also said that developments were rushing in the region, noting that priorities change in nearly a weekly basis."Today's dialogue would lose its impact in one month," Assad pointed out.

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