Syrian President Bashar al-Assad receives Expressen's Middle East correspondent Kassem Hamade in the guest palace al-Raoda in the capital Damascus.
Listen to the podcast of the whole interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Narrated by Patrik Almkvist.
Text: Kassem Hamadé
Mr. President, I would like to offer my most sincere thanks on behalf of Expressen for giving us this interview. Thank you so much. While we are sitting here, doing this interview, the terrorist organization ISIS and even al-Nusra is overrunning al-Yarmouk refugee camp. At the same time, al-Nusra is controlling the Syrian-Jordanian border and have taken control over Idlib. How serious would you describe the situation now?
‘Whenever you talk about terrorism, it’s always serious, because it’s always dangerous, anytime, anywhere, no matter how. That’s what you always say about terrorism, and it is not related directly to the example you have mentioned, because this is only a manifestation of terrorism. It’s a long process that started years ago even before the crisis in Syria. Terrorism is serious and dangerous because it doesn’t have borders, it doesn’t have limits. It could hit anywhere, it’s not a domestic issue. It’s not even regional; it’s global, that’s why it’s always dangerous. In our case, it’s more dangerous, let’s say, the situation is worse not only because of the military situation that you have mentioned in your question. Actually because this time it was having a political umbrella by many countries, many leaders, many officials, but mainly in the West. Many of those officials didn’t see the reality at the very beginning. It’s more dangerous this time because we don’t have international law, and you don’t have the effective international organization that would protect a country from another country that uses the terrorists as a proxy to destroy another country. That’s what’s happening in Syria. So, I’ll say yes, it is dangerous, but at the same time, it’s reversible. As long as it’s reversible, it’s not too late to deal with it. It’s going to be more serious with the time when the terrorists indoctrinate the hearts and minds of people.’
But they are overrunning more areas in Syria. Are the Syrian forces and army weakened?
‘That is the natural, normal repercussion of any war. Any war weakens any army, no matter how strong, no matter how modern. It undermines and weakens every society, in every aspect of the word; the economy, the society, let's say, the morals, and of course the army as part of this society. That's normal.’
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose”
But is the army weaker than before? Because last year, we could see win-win effect from your side, from the army's side, you overrunning more areas, more control over al-Qalamoun and other areas, but now, they have control over Idlib, as an example.
‘It is not related to that issue, whether it is stronger or weaker. As I said, any war undermines any army, that is the natural course of events. But in your case, when you look at the context of the war for the last four years, you have ups and downs. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and that depends on many criteria, some of them related to domestic, internal and military criteria, or factors, let's say, which is more precise. Some of them are related to how much support the terrorists have. For example, the recent example that you mentioned about Idlib, the main factor was the huge support that came through Turkey; logistic support, and military support, and of course financial support that came through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.’
It’s very important, what you say, Mr. President, because the United Nations’ Syria Envoy, Mr. Staffan de Mistura, he’s planning a series of consultations to begin in May or June to assess the chance of finding a common ground between the main states with an interest in the conflict. What do you think about it?
‘Actually, I agree with de Mistura about this point, because if we want to look at the conflict in Syria as only an internal conflict between Syrian factions, that’s not realistic and that’s not objective. Actually, the problem is not very complicated, but it became complicated because of external intervention, and any plan you want to execute in Syria today in order to solve the problem – and that’s what he faced in his plan towards Aleppo – it will be spoiled by external intervention. That’s what happened in Aleppo, when the Turks told the factions, the terrorists they support and supervise, to refuse to cooperate with de Mistura, so I think he’s aware that if he couldn’t convince these countries to stop supporting the terrorists and let the Syrians solve their problem, he will not succeed.’
What is your opinion about de Mistura’s efforts?
‘We discussed with him the plan for Aleppo, and it comes in line with our efforts in making reconciliations in different areas in Syria. This is where we succeeded, and this is where you could make things better, when you have people going back to their normality, when the government gives them amnesty and they turn in their armaments, and so on. So, his plan for Aleppo comes in line with the same principle of reconciliation, so we supported it from the very beginning, and we still support his efforts in that regard.’
Mr. President, Sweden is the only country in Europe that grants permanent rights of stay for people that flee the war in Syria. What has that meant, and how do you view Sweden’s policy?
‘In that regard or in general?’
In that regard, that’s right.
‘I think that’s something that’s appreciated around the world, not only in our country, and this humanitarian stand of Sweden is appreciated regarding different conflicts, including the Syrian one. So, this is a good thing to do, to give people refuge, but if you ask the Syrian people who fled from Syria “what do you want?” They don’t want to flee Syria because of the war; they want to end that war. That’s their aim, that’s our aim. So, I think if you give people refuge, it is good, but the best is to help them in going back to their country. How? I think Sweden is an important country in the EU. It can play a major role in lifting the sanctions, because many of the Syrians who went to Sweden or any other country, didn’t only leave because of the terrorist acts; they left because of the embargo, because they have no way for living, they want the basics for their daily livelihood. Because of the embargo, they had to leave Syria, so lifting the embargo that has affected every single Syrian person and at the same time banning any European country from giving an umbrella to terrorists under different names, whether they call it peaceful opposition, whether they call it moderate opposition. It’s been very clear today, it’s been proved, that this opposition that they used to support is the same al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood. Third one is to make pressure over countries that support terrorists and prevent any plan of peace in Syria, like the one that you mentioned, of Mr. de Mistura, to be implemented in Syria, mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. So I think this is the best help and humanitarian help on the political title that Sweden could offer to the Syrian people.’
Embargo and war, and millions of refugees or people who fled from the country. This has been described as the worst refugee crisis since World War II. How big of a responsibility, Mr. President, do you have for this situation
‘I think to compare between what’s happening in Syria, even from a humanitarian point of view, and what happened in World War II, I think it’s kind of a huge exaggeration. We cannot compare, for political reasons. But regardless of this exaggeration, we have millions of people who are displaced from their areas to other areas because of the terrorist acts, and that’s a huge burden. Actually, so far, we bear the major brunt of the crisis. You hear a lot of fuss about what the international organizations and what they call themselves “friends of Syria” spend money and give support and donations to the Syrians. Actually, if you want to have just a glimpse of what we are doing, for example in 2014, last year, all those countries and organizations offered in the food sector 22% of what we offer as a country during the war. That’s a huge difference, which is 1 to 5.’
Inside the country?
‘Inside Syria, yes. Regarding the healthcare sector, it was 1 to 18 in our favor. So actually, we are bearing the brunt. Besides that, we’re still paying salaries, sending vaccines to the children, offering and providing the basic requirements for the hospitals in the areas that are under the control of the terrorists. So, we are still running the country and bearing the brunt.’
According to SÄPO, the Swedish intelligence agency, returning jihadists – there are many here in Syria now – returning jihadists are the biggest domestic threat in Sweden today. Do you agree?
‘I wouldn’t look at terrorism as domestic or as regional. As I said, it’s global. So, if you want to look at Sweden as part of Europe or part of the Scandinavian group of European countries, you have to take into consideration that the most dangerous leaders of ISIS in our region are Scandinavian.’
”As long as you have terrorism growing in different European countries, Sweden cannot be safe.”
This is information?
‘Yes, it’s information. That’s what we have as information. So, you cannot separate this group of countries or Sweden from Europe. As long as you have terrorism growing in different European countries, Sweden cannot be safe. As long as the backyard of Europe, especially the Mediterranean and Northern Africa is in chaos and full of terrorists, Europe cannot be safe. So, yes I agree that it is a primary or prime threat, but you cannot call it domestic, but it’s a threat.’
Has Sweden asked you to share information about these ISIS fighters or other jihadists?
‘No, there’s no contact between our intelligence agencies.’
Mr. President, in December 2010, Taimour Abdulwahab, a Swedish terrorist who was trained in Iraq and Syria, carried out a suicide attack in Stockholm. Recently, the same scenario in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and even Copenhagen. Do you think Western countries will face the same scenario in the future?
‘Actually, everything that happened in Europe, and I mean terrorist attacks, we warned from at the very beginning of the crisis, and I said Syria is a fault line, when you mess with this fault line you will have the echoes and repercussions in different areas, not only in our area, even in Europe. At that time, they said the Syrian president is threatening. Actually, I wasn’t threatening; I was describing what’s going to happen. It doesn’t take a genius because that’s the context of events that happened many times in our region, and we have experience with those kinds of terrorists for more than 50 years now. They didn’t listen, so what happened was warned of before, and what we saw in France, in Charlie Hebdo, the suicide attempts in Copenhagen, in London, in Spain, ten years ago, this is only the tip of the iceberg; terrorism is a huge mountain. It’s not isolated events. When you have those isolated events, you have to know that you have a big mountain under the sea that you don’t see. So, yes, I expect, as long as you have this mountain, and as long as many European officials are still adulating countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar just for their money and selling their values and allowing the Wahhabi dark ideology to infiltrate and be instilled in some communities in Europe, we have to expect more attacks in that regard.’
What is the most effective way to deal with terrorism?
‘First of all, terrorism is not a war. First of all, it’s a state of mind, it’s a culture, so you have to deal with this culture. You have to deal with it in an ideological way, and that implicates the education and the culture. Second, those terrorists exploit the poor people. You have to deal with poverty, so economic growth is very important, development. Third, you have to deal with the political issue that’s being used by these terrorists in order to indoctrinate those youths or children in solving the political problems in our region, for example the peace issue was one of the primary reasons for those terrorists to recruit terrorists.’
Which peace? You mean the peace process?
‘I mean between the Arabs and the Israelis. Solving this problem, because this is one of the reasons to having desperation, you have to deal with the desperation of those youths who wanted to go and die to go to heaven to have a better life. That’s how they think. So, you have to deal with these desperations. The last measure is exchanging information between the intelligence. War is only to defend yourself against terrorism. You cannot go and attack terrorism by war, you can only defend yourself if they use military means, so that’s how we can defend against terrorism.’
Mr. President, ISIS has asked its supporters from around the world to come to Syria and Iraq to populate their so-called caliphate. How do you see the future for ISIS?
‘I don’t think that ISIS so far has any real incubator in our society. Let me talk about Syria first. I cannot talk on behalf of other societies in our region, because when you talk about ISIS it’s not a Syrian issue now; Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Libyan, in Egypt, in many areas they have it. But regarding Syria, they don’t have the incubator, so if you want to talk about the short term, ISIS doesn’t have a future, but in the midterm, in the long term, when they indoctrinate the hearts and minds of the people, especially the youths and children. This area will have only one future; al-Qaeda future, which is ISIS, al-Nusra, and Muslim Brotherhood, and this is going to be your backyard, I mean the European backyard.’
In the middle and long term, it’s very dangerous.
‘Of course it is, because you can take procedures against many things, but ideology you cannot control. When it is instilled, it’s very difficult to get rid of. So, when it’s instilled, this is the only future of the region.’
ISIS and al-Nusra, they get help, they receive support from outside, you said Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and like that, but so does your side too. You have Hezbollah fighting for you. Do you need Hezbollah here in Syria?
‘As a Swedish citizen, you don’t accept anyone to tell you or to draw comparison between Taimour Abdulwahab, for example, as a terrorist, and your government, no matter whether you agree with your government or oppose your government. The same for Charlie Hebdo, terrorists and the French government, you cannot make comparison. So, we don’t accept as Syrians to have comparison between the state and the terrorist organizations. Our mission is to help the country, to defend the citizens, while I don’t think this is the role of ISIS or al-Nusra or the Muslim Brotherhood. Their role, actually, is only to kill people and terrorize them. So, you cannot make a comparison. Second, as a government, we have the right to ask for support from any state or organization or any entity that will help us in our war against terrorism. Third, because when I said terrorism cannot be a domestic issue, and this is wrong to look at it as a domestic issue, the good thing is to have cooperation with different powers in the region. For example, we had cooperation between the Syrians and the Iraqis even before the rise of ISIS recently during the summer of last year in Mosul. Before that we had good cooperation, intelligence and even military, for one reason; because the Iraqis were aware that the terrorism in Syria could spill over to Iraq, and that’s what happened in Mosul. The same is with the Lebanese. So, Hezbollah is aware that terrorism in Syria means terrorism in Lebanon. Chaos here means chaos there, so this kind of regional cooperation is very important for all of us.’
Mr. President, Sweden has just had a diplomatic quarrel with Saudi Arabia. What is you analysis of the crisis between Sweden and Saudi Arabia?
‘Whenever you want to discuss any relation between any two countries, the first question is what are the commonalities. What are the shared values between the two countries? In that case, between Sweden and Saudi Arabia, I would ask very simply: the shared values, is it about the political system, or the democracy, or the elections, or the human rights, or women rights, where they don’t have the right even to drive a car, or is it the beheading in public squares, or flogging the people because they write their opinion on Twitter or any social networking site publically? Is that the shared values? As long as you don’t have those shared values, we expect this kind of quarrel. There’s only one way to not have it: either to adulate to the Saudis for their money, or to sell your values that you are proud of to them for their petrodollars. As long as you stick to your values, you have to expect this kind of quarrel.’
You’re not surprised?
‘No, not all. Actually, many were surprised maybe by the positive Swedish position, because what we got used to in Europe is to have officials in Europe only adulate the Saudis, talking about democracy in Syria for example, while their best friends are the Saudis, a medieval state, so this is a double standard. So, we were surprised by the one standard in Sweden, to be frank, but we are surprised positively.’
You mean that Syria and Sweden, for example, have more common values than Saudi Arabia and Sweden?
‘I don’t want to exaggerate and say we have the same level of system, because we have our own society, our own circumstances, but Syria was at least on the way to democracy, at least we had a parliament for more than eight decades now. Women are in the parliament since that time, they have the right of election, again, since the beginning of the last century. You cannot compare Syria with Saudi Arabia. But we are on the way toward more democracy, and that’s a natural process. Democracy is not a prescription, it’s not only laws and decrees. Actually, it’s a long process. It’s a social and legislative process at the same time. So, we are moving in that way, while Saudi Arabia never knew anything about this word. They never moved, they never tried to understand it, they don’t accept it as a principle. So, that’s the comparison I would like to talk about if you want to talk about Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Syria.’
Very important thing you said now, Syria is or was on the way to more democracy. Didn’t the West understand that before the war?
‘Many in the West understood this, but actually at the beginning of the crisis they were led by the Qatari propaganda, the Saudi propaganda and intelligence, so some of them knew, and some didn’t, they were deceived by what they heard from those countries, but they knew that before the crisis we were moving in that regard. But the problem with the West is that they look at democracy as a goal. It’s not the goal; it’s the process. The goal is prosperity. Democracy is a tool to reach that prosperity, and we are using that tool and moving in that regard. So, it takes time, and that’s natural.’
‘Now, in the crisis, the priority to the Syrian people is survival now, because it’s an existential threat to the Syrian people. When you talk about terrorism, it’s an existential threat. So, people first think about their safety and the safety of the country. How can you have democracy while you don’t have life first? You need life first, you need safety, you need security, then you can talk about democracy. You cannot reverse things.’
What’s your advice to Sweden, regarding the Saudi Arabia and Sweden quarrel?
‘We would like to see in every country in the world, but mainly in the West – we got used to it using double standards – we would like to see everyone stick to their values like Sweden, and we would like to see Sweden stick to its values, because in those values you have your interests as a Swedish citizen, and in your values we have interests, as a developing country. We have the same interests in those values, while when you have double standards, you don’t get your interests as you want and you’re going to pay the price, so that’s the only advice. We want them to stick to their values. ‘
Mr. President, I have covered the war in Syria for the last four years. I met different groups and activists who were involved in the conflict. I even met soldiers from your army here. Some of those activists are actually not Islamists. I have been told that they fight for freedom. What would you like to say to them?
‘We never said every fighter is an Islamist. We know that. But they are prevailing now, the terrorists, ISIS and al-Nusra, but if you want to talk about freedom, freedom is a natural instinct in every human since our ancestor Adam, and this is a divine thing for anyone to ask for, so it's going to be illogical and unrealistic and against the nature of the Earth and the people to be against freedom. But we have to ask a few simple questions. Is killing people part of that freedom? Is destroying schools and banning children from going to schools part of that freedom? Destroying the infrastructure, electricity, communications, sanitation system, beheading, dismemberment of victims. Is that freedom? I think the answer to that question is very clear to everyone regardless of their culture. So, we support anyone who works to get more freedom, but in an institutional way, under the constitution of that country, not by violence and terrorism and destroying the country. There's no relation between that and freedom. They blame even the Syrian army for the same things, as in killing and like that.’
‘They have to prove. I mean, the army has been fighting for four years. How can you withstand a war against so many countries, great countries and rich countries, while you kill your people? How could you have the support of your people? That's impossible. That's against reality, I mean, that's unpalatable.’