Asad Interview with Alix Van Buren - Republica
Dr. Nicola Migliorino an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter has been kind enough to translate the Repubblica interview that Alix Van Buren did with President Bashar al-Asad 3 days ago.
Mr. President, the United States raise the level of the accusations, Israel threatens an attack. Your are at the helm of a country sometimes defined as ‘rogue state’. How do you feel?
In spite of what might appear, I don’t feel isolated at all. It’ true that the Euro-Atlantic relations are recovering at our expenses. Only at a first sight, though. In fact many differences remain in place [between Europe and the US], on some crucial points, for instance the international choices, stability. And Europe knows that our first interest is stability. Europe knows that we can co-operate in the war on terror, because we know how to do it: we have fought it during the 1970s and 1980s. Washington has imposed isolation and sanctions against us before. And each time, the circle drawn around us did not close. If you ask me if I expect a military attack, though, well I see it coming since the end of the war on Iraq. It is since then that the tension is mounting.
And now? Are we coming to the final showdown with Washington?
I don’t think. These are only preliminaries. Surely, the language that the White House is using, if read between lines, encourages to think [that this is] a campaign similar to that that preceded the attack against Iraq. They accuse us of being morally responsible for the death of the Lebanese former PM Hariri. But the discussion on the attack in Beirut has been highly blown up. One thing is undeniable: there has been an intelligence failure. But few remember that our [security] services have left the [Lebanese] capital long ago. If we had really killed Hariri, for us it would be a political suicide. In fact, besides ethical and human principles, the important question is: who benefits? Certainly not Syria.
Shall we list the suspects?
I do not want to indict anybody, nor express pre-emptive judgements. In the first places, in the Middle Eastern logic, there are Syria and Israel. But if you want I can tell you this: in Lebanon there are groups able to organise attacks of that type. We have seen this many times during the last few years: the assassination of Hobeika, the bomb against a Hamas official. Let’s wait for the results of the enquiry.
Bush said that the ball is now in your field. He prepared a list of requests: the full application of [UNSC] Res. 1559, that is the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and Security Forces from Lebanon, elections in Beirut without Syrian interference. President, how do you respond to this?
There are two replies. The first is that we refer to the United Nations, from which the Resolution was issued. We will respect it, as any other resolution, right or wrong. A mission is being implemented, there will be a report. The second answer is that our troops will be redeployed along the Syro-Lebanese borders, but on the Lebanese side of the border. Besides, the Washington ultimatum has been issued with bad timing: for the 60% of our troops started the withdrawal in 2000. You see, deploy [our troops] abroad is against our interest: it comes with a high price, both in economic terms, and politically. But what is at stake is very important: it touches the core of stability in Lebanon and at our borders.
That’s right. But the Lebanese opposition replies that this is too much: you were invited as guests, but you stayed too long…
No, please. It’s true. We stayed ten years longer than expected. But look at recent history. Civil war ended in 1990. [Lebanon] needed to reconstruct the army, to reconstruct the country on new, secular and non-confessional bases. This was required by the Ta’if agreement, with the clause that the two governments would later agree the final withdrawal at a later stage. What could not be foreseen was the continuation of the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, until 2000. And there was, at that time, hope for peace in the entire region. On the contrary, here we are, with war raging at our borders. You see those mountains outside the window? Well, in 1982 Israel got until there, a handful of kilometres from Damascus. Technically the withdrawal can be managed within a year. Strategically, however, it will only happen if we will obtain serious guarantees. In one word: peace.
The streets of Beirut have declared a peaceful intifada [against Syria]. President, don’t you fear a new Ukraine?
No. Those who expect Ukraine in the country of Cedars is under an illusion. You see, Lebanon is complex, one has to know how to interpret it. It is a society that, to many respects, is tribal, divided in communities that have often clashed against each other in history. The allies of today are the enemy of yesterday, and the alliances change from one season to the other, the more today during an electoral campaign. But if someone from outside wants to blow on fire, any slip could have disastrous consequences. Lebanon, however, is only a pretext. The true objective of Washington is another.
It is Iraq. It’s a war that we have never accepted. Washington accuses us of scarce co-operation, of supporting the guerrilla. But, truly, they ask us to remedy to their many mistakes: the dissolution of the state, of the military forces. The problem is the absence of a global project. The only winning plan is the one that is coincident with the will of the Iraqis.
Concerning the hostility vis-à-vis the invasion of Iraq, there is an allegedly high number of young men from your country who cross the border to join the fight against the Americans. The White House accuses you of not controlling the border as you should.
No. That is not true. Those porous borders are a problem for us too. From there come armes, smugglers, and terror workforce. With our means, it is impossible to check 500 kilometers of sand without a road. If we could seal [those 500 km], we would have done it at the time of Saddam, when he smuggled trucks filled with TNT to blow them up in our squares. For this reason I have asked the help of the Americans.
To the Americans?
Yes. I have received an envoy of the Pentagon, I have spoken about it with the State Department. I have asked for night vision equipment and radar systems, more or less the same technology that they use at the border with Mexico. I have even proposed, in October, the creation of mixed Syro-American patrols.
What did they reply?
I am still waiting.
Then is the big obstacle of Hizbullah. You have never denied that you support an organisation that Washington defines terrorist. Israel indicates Hizbullah as the author of the terrorist attack of [last] Friday night in Tel Aviv. These are new very strong accusations against Damascus.
If we want to talk about terror, then we should start by saying that Hizbullah is a movement which emerged in Lebanon to fight the Israeli invasion of 1982. Its area of action is limited to the Lebanese territory. It does not hit in Israel, contrary to other groups, like the Islamic Jihad. It is also a political party, with 11 MPs in the Parliament. So one cannot simplify and throw it in the big bowl of ‘terror’. It is revealing that Europe is unwilling to include it in the list of terrorist organisations. Hariri himself was mediating with the EU to avoid the inclusion [of Hizbullah in the list].
The Islamic Jihad has claimed from Damascus the Tel Aviv attack. Israel considers [Syria] guilty.
It is an insulting accusation. Syria has nothing to do with it. The office of the Islamic Jihad here has been closed for years. What remains are some political figures, they have been expelled from Israel. Should we expel them too?
The new Palestinian government has hurriedly expressed its solidarity to Syria. Is it the sign of a new entente between Damascus and the Palestinian leadership? For twenty years, before you became president, Arafat was persona non grata in Syria. What has changed?
I wish I could have met [Arafat]. But then there was the Muqata siege, and he could not travel. Now we are working in close contact with the Palestinian president Abou Mazen. Shortly after being elected he came to Damascus. We have a priority: to bring unity among the various Palestinian factions, precisely to avoid the risk of dangerous slips. So, you see, it is out of place to indicate Syria as a factor of instability.
Prime Minister Sharon requires from you a proof of your willingness to make peace. And in the first interviews to an Arab newspapers has defined himself a man of peace.
Forgive me if I smile. But besides that, peace is for Syria a strategic choice. Sharon says that he does not believe in the sincerity of my offers, but then why not verify? The parameters of peace are well known. We only need to sit and negotiate.
Your father, President Hafiz Al Asad, used to say that he wanted to leave peace as a legacy. Recently it has been revealed that in 2000 the peace deal was nearly concluded. What happened?
This way: President Clinton called my father on the telephone. He call him to participate to an unexpected meeting. He told him: come, you will see, you will be happy. He had received reassurances from the Israeli PM Barak. Clinton met my father in Geneva. The agreement was on the restitution of the Golan heights, with the exception of a 100 meters strip along the Tiberias lake. At the last minute Barak pulled back. He was caught by doubts before getting on board of the plane that would take him to the meeting. He understood that Israel was not ready for peace, that he had no political support backing him up. Syria, on the contrary, was ready. We had come close to peace with Rabin too. Then he was killed, and with him all the hopes.
For Israel the re-start of negotiations has to take place without “preconditions”. Is it acceptable?
We have, before anything else, understand the meaning of the term “preconditions”. What does it mean? That we can start a dialogue but that we should disregard the results reached in 1994 and 2000? Well, if it is that way, what is this if not a “precondition”? For Syria, I repeat it, peace is a strategic choice. For Israel, on the contrary, it changes as government change.
The US blame you for being out of tempo, of not adapting to the democratic transformation of the Middle East.
Rapidity is a subjective concept. The truth is that we have taken important steps. Our problems are bureaucratic and administrative reform, modernising an enormous ‘rusty machine’, changing the mentality of people, substituting loyal obedience with creativity, eradicating deeply rooted corruption. But, as for any great revolution, we need years. At least one generation. We need the help of the international community. And more than anything I am concerned about the need of preserving the social and political stability of the country. Modernisation can come at a high price for vast layers of the population.
What is the situation of human rights?
I could reply that it is better than at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but it is only an easy joke. I could tell you of the one thousand and more political prisoners that we have freed, of the new periodicals. But I admit it: we have strict rules. In the last sixty years we have lived in a situation of constant danger, decades of war, of hostility of countries ready to topple our regimes, years of terror. We cannot afford normal laws. At least now.
You have an ambivalent relation with the [internal] opposition. You welcome them, but you control them.
Concerning the dissidents, I am an open minded man. But I cannot allow them to create troubles. I am not an employee here, I have to take care of my country. If in Hyde Park someone attacks the Queen, nothing happens. But if here someone in the street, for example, verbally attacks the Christians, the following day there could be a civil war. You can say: it is a question of freedom of speech. But in this way the country is driven on the rocks.
Mr. President, what do you fear most in these days?
The thought of this armed America that today behaves as a superpower without vision. None of the problems the in 2001 led to the attack against the twin towers and then to the war against Saddam has been solved. On the contrary, some have become more serious, and most of all the question of the stability. From Damascus to Jerusalem, to Islamabad and Kabul there is a front of recruitment of terror. The last attack in Syria took place a few weeks ago. On the mountains of Lebanon there are cells of Al-Qaeda. Even Italy was targeted.
But what can you do against terrorism?
I offered my help to Washington. Sooner of later they will understand that we are a key to the solution. We are essential to the peace process, for Iraq. You will see, maybe one day the Americans will come and knock on our door.
La Repubblica (Rome) 28 February 2005