He denies that he sold out his country to Iran.
He talks about his dependency on support from Hizbollah.
But Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad refuses to admit that his regime uses poison gas, despite reports of several horrific attacks where children were killed.
- They are trying to demonize the President, al-Assad says to Expressen-reporter Kassem Hamadé.
Text: Kassem Hamadé
Mr. President, the war in Syria has entered its fifth year. We talked about Idleb now and about the border between Jordan and Syria and other areas. How much of the territory of Syria do you actually control? We heard a number, 10% of the country.
‘This is not realistic, I mean the number, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in Damascus city with me, and you would be doing the interview with the opposition leader who would be in charge of the country, so that’s not realistic. But again, I mean, we cannot look at it regarding those numbers, whether it’s fifty or sixty or seventy. First of all this is not a traditional war, not a war between two regular armies and the first one makes an incursion in the land of the second army. Actually, it’s untraditional war where terrorists can fill the vacuum wherever there is no army or security in Syria, and you know you cannot be, I mean as an army, you cannot be everywhere in every part of Syria. So, wherever there is no army, they can exist. But at the same time, every war, nearly every war the army has launched, or nearly every battle in this world, it gained the territory, but again, the terrorists would go to another place. So, in this kind of war, the question since the beginning of the crisis, what was it about? When it started as a propaganda outside Syria and later as terrorist attacks. The main goal was to gain the hearts and minds of the Syrian people, because this is the only way to get rid of this government or this state or this President. This is where they failed. So far, I think they failed because the Syrian people were aware about what is going on. Many of them now support the government against the terrorists and against the external intervention. So, so far I would say that the majority of the Syrian people support their government, and that is the kind of control that you could talk about.’
The Iraqi army collapsed when ISIS attacked last summer in Mosul. You know that, Mr. President, and the Syrian army is of much higher quality. Why have you not recaptured Raqqa for example from ISIS? Why just air attacks?
‘Because when you have such a war, such a vicious war, terrorists supported by tens of countries around the world, and terrorists coming as recruits from over 100 countries to Syria, and you have anyway a small country, limited resources, you have to put a list of priorities based on military criteria. Otherwise, you will be distracted in your war in every place in Syria, and actually you won’t win any battles. So, you put the priorities, and the final of this list of priorities is to recapture every part of Syria, whether a big city or small village, whether an empty place or an inhabited place, and Raqqa will be one of the main cities that we’re going to capture, but it’s just a matter of time regarding this list I’m talking about. ’
“So, talking about the chemical weapons, they didn’t have a single evidence regarding this”
Mr. President, once again you are accused for having used chemical weapons in Syria. Two sets of tests carried out for The Times and medical charities reveal that your forces chlorine and cyanide, according to The Times and even Amnesty International, I think. What do you have to say about it?
‘We always said this is propaganda against Syria from the very first day, to demonize the President to demonize the state, in order to bring the hearts and minds of the Syrian people toward their agenda. That didn’t work, and if you want to compare this propaganda to what is happening now in the West regarding Ukraine, it’s nearly the same; demonizing Putin and telling and forging, a lot of videos and things that only tell the public opinion in the West lies. This is reality. Western people should be aware about this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have mistakes, we don’t have something wrong or something bad going on, but at the end, this media propaganda doesn’t reflect the reality in our region. So, talking about the chemical weapons, they didn’t have a single evidence regarding this, and even the numbers that are being published by many European organizations as part of that propaganda were varied from 200 victims to 1,400 victims. It means it’s not objective, it’s not precise, and so far there’s no evidence that those people were killed because of this attack. The only evidence that we have when the committee came from the United Nations, it proved that the sarin gas was used in that area, but they couldn’t tell how and by whom, so they just keep accusing Syria of that. That’s not realistic, because if you want to use WMDs, you don’t kill a few hundreds; you kill tens of thousands of people, and that’s beside the capital, it will affect everyone. So, many stories regarding this issue are not correct. Second, we are the party who asked the United Nations to send a delegation to verify this allegation.’
You still do that?
‘We did, Syria did. Syria asked the United Nations, not any other country. When there was proof that terrorists used it in the north of Syria, they didn’t try to verify it. They didn’t mention it. So it’s part of the political agenda against Syria.’
Mr. President, the official Syrian delegation and part of the opposition have recently met in Moscow. Are there any effective results of that meeting?
‘Actually, yes. We can say yes, because this meeting was the first time to reach – because you know we had many dialogues before – this is the first time to reach an agreement upon some of the principles that could make the foundation for the next dialogue between the Syrians. We haven’t finalized it yet, because the schedule of that meeting was very comprehensive, so four days wasn’t enough. Actually, two days, it was four days, but two days between the government and the other opposition representatives. It wasn’t enough to finalize the schedule, but because when you have a breakthrough, even if it’s a partial breakthrough, it means that the next meeting will be promising in reaching a full agreement about what are the principles of Syrian dialogue that will bring a Syrian, let’s say, solution to the conflict.’
“It could be an individual incident”
As you know there are many serious allegations against your government, about human rights abuses committed by your side. How much do you know about torture in your prisons here?
‘When you talk about torture we have to differentiate between policy of torture and individual incidents that happen by any individual. When you talk about a policy of torture, the closest example is what happened in Guantanamo. In Guantanamo, there was a policy of torture by the American administration that was endorsed by President Bush and by his minister of defense and the rest of the administration. With Syria we never had under any circumstances such a policy. If you have any breach of law, torture, revenge, whatever, it could be an individual incident that the one who committed should be held accountable for. So, that’s what could happen anywhere in the world, like any other crime.’
Can Amnesty International or Red Cross visit your prisons here?
‘We had many reporters and many organizations that came to Syria, but if you want to mention a certain name to come and visit, that depends on the kind of cooperation a certain organization and our government and that depends on the credibility of the organization. But in principle, many organizations and entities can visit our prisons.’
How do you describe the relation between Syria and Iran today?
‘The same relation that we could have described 35 years ago since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, when Syria stood by that revolution, supported it while many countries, but mainly the West and the Gulf states, stood against it, then later Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and we supported Iran. Now, Iran supports Syria. So, it’s a mutual support which is actually an alliance. So, it’s an alliance. That’s how I can describe it.’
Some critics say that you have sold your country to Iran, and that you would not survive without the help of Iran and Hezbollah. Is it true?
‘If I wanted to adopt this principle, to be ready to sell my country, I would have sold it to the United States, maybe to Israel, maybe to Saudi Arabia, because many countries since the independence of Syria wanted to control Syria for geopolitical reasons. So, if I wanted to sell, I would sell it to the United States first. So, as long as I don’t sell it to anyone, I wouldn’t sell it to Iran. This is first. Second, Iran never tried to control my country. Never. And the Syrian people, by nature, they won’t accept anyone to control their country. So, when Iran supports Syria, that doesn’t mean it controls, doesn’t mean it tries to impose what it wants on the Syrian government. What you say, we couldn’t survive without Iran and Hezbollah, this is a hypothetical question for one reason: sometimes small support in a big war will lead you to bigger results, in any war or any conflict, will give big results. So, whether this support is small or big, it has given a result, we cannot deny this, and their position, supporting Syria, was vital for us. But how was it without their support is difficult to tell. It must have been more difficult, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t survive.’
How much influence does Iran have in Syria?
‘It’s about how we look at the word “influence,” because influence could be positive and it could be negative. If you want to talk about the influence of France and Germany in Europe, it’s very clear, because one of them is a political power and the other one is an economic power. Iran is an important country to our region. It’s a big country, it’s a developed country, proportionally, at least. But that influence, I would look at it in a positive way, because Iran is a country that seeks to have more stability, for its interests. Any country has interests. So, it is influential, but in a positive way.’
I understand that Iran is an important country to Syria, but do you need help from Hezbollah?
‘Again, for the same reason that I just mentioned, even small help could have a big impact. This is one reason. But regarding Hezbollah in particular, Hezbollah has good experience in untraditional war. So, in this kind of untraditional war, this kind of help is not quantitative help; it’s qualitative help, and sometimes you need that kind of quality that will have good impact and strong impact in our war. So, it’s not about the size of Hezbollah, if you want to compare it to the size of the Syrian army, it’s small, but the kind of war and the kind of experience that they have, they could have a strong impact.’
It’s well-known now that Hezbollah is in Syria. How much control do you have over them?
‘Every party that fights besides the Syrian army – because you know we have Syrian fighters who are not in the army but who support the army – every faction who fights with the army is working under the leadership of our army, so they don’t work, they don’t have their own battle, or their front, or their own decision. All the battles are under the Syrian army, so we don’t have any problems.’
You had Khaled Meshaal, he was in Syria for 11-12 years, I think, he stayed in Syria. Now he left Syria to Qatar. The relation between Hamas and Syria wasn’t so well during the war. How is the relation today?
‘There is no relation at all on the formal level or on the popular level. I think now, recently the events in Yarmouk Camp have proved that part of Hamas, which is basically a Muslim Brotherhood organization, supports al-Nusra Front within Yarmouk.’
They’re supporting a terrorist group?
‘Yes, they work together. Part of them, they work with al-Nusra. That’s why the leadership of Hamas is in Qatar now, calling to help their faction after ISIS attacked al-Nusra and Hamas faction, to ask the other secular Palestinian organizations to help their members.’
So Hamas in Syria, they’re history today, the relation.
‘I think so, I don’t think the Syrian people will trust them anymore.’
Mr. President, let us talk about the United States and Ayn al-Arab. The United States is now attacking ISIS from the air. Actually, they are supporting you. How do you describe the military cooperation between you and the United States who is supposed to be your enemy?
‘My enemy, first of all, is the terrorists. Second, there’s no cooperation between Syria and the American army.’
‘Definitely no cooperation, although we are making air raids in the same area, sometimes in the same places exactly.’
Not even coordination?
‘No, no coordination. But I will tell you maybe part of this, let’s say, coincidence, this attack anyway, because the first part of the question that they support us, let’s say nominally, on paper, yes. In reality, no, because if you want a kind of comparison, the average of air raids of the alliance that’s been made by 60 countries, some of them great countries, is much less than the air raids of a small country like Syria. So, for example, sometimes they make less than ten or more than ten air raids a day, while sometimes we make more than 100 a day, sometimes. So, sometimes it’s more than tenfold.’
Attacking the same place, the same area?
‘The same area, let’s say, in general. So, this is not realistic, I mean, if you want to say are they serious? That’s the question that we raise here: are they serious in fighting terrorists?’
Are they serious?
‘Because they’re not serious, they cannot help us. That’s the simple conclusion. If they are serious, maybe we could have discussed that question more seriously, that yes, there is some help, there is some influence. It took them four months to liberate a small city, like what you call Kobani in your media. A similar city would take two to three weeks by our army. So, there’s something wrong about their plan. So, actually no, they didn’t help, and in reality ISIS and al-Nusra are expanding nonstop in different countries now. So, if you want to talk about success or help, where is it? We don’t find it so far.’
But they don’t have permission to fly over Syria.
‘No, it’s illegal. We said publically that this illegal and they don’t have permission.’
Mr. President, how do you view the future of Syria?
‘Despite all the pain and destruction and bloodshed, every cloud has a silver lining, so we have to look at the white spot in the dark image. This crisis will make every Syrian rethink the weak points that we used to have in our society. For example, many fanatics didn’t see the thin line between being fanatic and being extremist. Many people didn’t see the thin line between extremist and terrorist. So that will push the whole society to shift more toward moderation, although I’m talking about a moderate society, but in every moderate society you have extreme and fanatic corners and spots. So, I think that will push our society to cherish what we had during our history as moderation and as integration, as different colors of the Syrian spectrum. So, from that side, I see it as a good side to build society. Rebuilding the country is not a problem, any country could be rebuilt later, but the main challenge is how to purify the next generation that saw these atrocities from the debris of what they saw psychologically and morally. That is the challenge, I think. I’m not pessimistic. I mean, if we get rid of the terrorists, I’m not pessimistic about the future of Syria.’
You’re talking about rebuilding the country. Who will pay for that?
‘First of all, the country itself, and when you have the first projects start, the wheel of economy will move forward, and this is where it can generate its financial resources for itself. Second, the countries which supported the Syrian people with investments, like Russia, like China, like Iran, and many others. Third, every country and its investors that didn’t involve themselves or weren’t involved in shedding Syrian blood.’
In the last four years, I traveled all over the country, from Darra to Lattakia, to everywhere. It seems for me mission impossible to rebuild the country. Is it possible?
‘No, it’s not impossible, because many countries have been destroyed in different crises like wars, like earthquakes, and so on. No, rebuilding the infrastructure, rebuilding the buildings, the concrete, is not something difficult. It’s not a big challenge. The most important challenge is to rebuild the human.’
That’s what I wanted to ask you about. I visited many houses in Syria, families and like that, and I think that each home in Syria is affected by the war. Children, men, women, elderly people, etc. They need help to rebuild themselves. What can you do? What can the world do to help them?
‘We already started. We don’t have to wait till the end of the war to help those families. We already started helping them by grants, donations, loans, and other special services towards those bereaved families. You have of course different cases, different scenarios, so we already started this. But the most important part of any support is the moral support, how the society and the government embrace those families who lost dear members whether by coincidence or lost them during the fight against terrorists, in the army or the police or by supporting the army or the police directly. So this is the most important, and that’s I think what the Syrian society offered to those families, and that’s why we could withstand for four years, and as you said we are into the fifth year now.’
You’re talking about the Syrian society. How much is the Syrian society divided today?
‘If the society is divided, automatically the country will be divided. Without this division, there are no such borders to divide a country, only the people can divide it, and it could be divided when you have these clear lines between sects or religions or ethnicities. Now, if you look at the society now in the safe areas, where you have many displaced people coming from place to place, living with each other. You look at the whole spectrum of the Syrian society living together. If you have real division, they wouldn’t live with each other.’
So, the country isn’t divided today?
‘No, it’s not divided. There’s a big difference, and this is one of the wrong terms that’s been used in the media in the West: that there’s a civil war in Syria. There’s no civil war. Civil war should be based on sectarian or ethnic or certain clear lines. It’s not civil war, it’s a war between society and the terrorists. This is the real war, actually, in Syria. So, otherwise, they wouldn’t live with each other, and you can go and see that with your eyes, see all the spectrum, with no exception. When I say all, I don’t like to use the absolute word, but this is absolute that all the spectrum lives with each other, so it’s still the same. Actually, I would say that this homogeneity today is much stronger than before the war, because of the war, because as I said earlier, the Syrian people learned many lessons from that war. They are closer to each other than before the war.’
“You always have mistakes and that’s natural”
If you could turn back the time to 2011 and the start of the crisis, what would you, with the benefit of hindsight, have done differently?
‘We have to go to the basics first. I mean, the two things that we adopted in the very beginning: fight the terrorists, and at the same make dialogue, and we started dialogue during the first year, a few months after the beginning of the conflicts in Syria. We invited everyone to the table to make dialogue, and we cooperated with every initiative that came from the United Nations, from the Arab League, and from any other country, regardless of the credibility of that initiative, just in order not to leave any stone unturned and not to give anyone the excuse that they didn’t do this or didn’t do that. So, we tried everything. So, I don’t think anyone could say that we should have gone in a different way, whether regarding the dialogue or fighting terrorism. These are the main pillars of our policy since the beginning of the problem. Now, any policy needs execution and implementation. In implementation, you always have mistakes and that’s natural. So, to talk about doing things differently, it could be about the details sometimes, but I don’t think now the Syrians would say we don’t want to make dialogue or we don’t want to fight terrorism.’
But what do you miss most from your time in London?
‘We’re talking about a different age, I was young. Maybe I miss youth. But actually, at that time when I used to live in London, when you go to a developed country, you go to specialize there, to get the knowledge, and because you get the knowledge there and you live there, you have to cherish this relation with that country as a country that gives you knowledge in order to develop your country. So, the background, the unconscious feeling toward that country is that country is helping me. You miss now, as Britain and France are the spearhead against Syria, you miss that feeling, that those countries want to help the Syrian people, not to kill them. That is what you miss.’
How do you explain to your children what is happening in Syria?
‘Actually, in transparency, because they live in this society, they live with their colleagues at school, they watch different channels, they use the internet to see different kinds of opinions and atrocities at the same time, so you have to be fully transparent to explain to them what is going on. But the most important part of this dialogue is to focus on the values. The values in our society are not taken for granted anymore because of the situation that we’ve been living in. I mean, when they see killing, you have to focus more on the well-being, on the good will of that child. When they see terrorists that don’t accepts the others, that all the others should be killed because they don’t have the same ideology, you have to focus more on the value of accepting the other regardless of his ideology or affiliation. So, these things are the most important part of the dialogue in such a crisis between a father and mother and their children.’
Do the children ask questions about the war?
‘This is a daily dialogue, I think, in every house in Syria. This is our life now. The crisis is our life. The life of the youths, the children, the elderly, and everyone.’
We know that you have lost friends and even relatives in this war. How has that affected you?
‘Like any other family in the Middle East that would always be emotional, and the relation between the members of the family and the relatives and the friends are warm relations, warm links, so any loss will affect you deeply with sadness, but at the same time that will incite you to think more about how can you protect the threatened life in Syria now, that will incite you to think practically about what can you do from your position to help the rest of the Syrians, because the same feeling that I’m suffering from, millions of Syrians are suffering from the same feeling. That could be an important incentive for you to help the rest of the Syrians.’
What does it take, short of a miracle, to stop the war?
‘First of all, stop the intervention from the outside, and I said earlier that our problem is not very complicated. The solution is very clear, but it’s more complicated because of external intervention. Stop it, stop the flow of terrorism and terrorists coming from Turkey by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the help of Erdogan himself, stop the flowing of armaments and money to them, stop giving any umbrella to the terrorists by the West under any titles, moderate or any other one. This is where the Syrian problem will be solved in a few months. It will not take long.’
Thank you, Mr. President.