Joined: 09 Sep 2006
|Posted: Mon Jan 19, 2009 6:21 pm Post subject: SPIEGEL INTERVIEW WITH SYRIAN PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD
|Assad: Chemical weapons, that's another thing. But you don't seriously
expect me to present our weapons program to you here? We are in a state of
01/19/2009 03:20 PM
SPIEGEL INTERVIEW WITH SYRIAN PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD
'Peace without Syria Is Unthinkable'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Syrian President Bashar Assad discusses the
war between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the threat of an
Iranian nuclear bomb and his expectations for incoming United States
President Barack Obama.
Editor's note: The following interview was conducted on Thursday with Syrian
President Assad prior to the announcement of unilateral cease-fires by
Israel and Hamas.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, the world community is protesting Israel's
aggression in Gaza, but they have also called upon Hamas to relent. No one
in the Arab world has as much influence on Hamas as you do. Couldn't you
have tempered the fighters?
Assad: It always depends on how one uses one's influence. Our most urgent
objective is to stop the attack. The fighting must come to an end, and this
applies to both sides. In addition, the Israeli embargo against Gaza must
end, because sealing the borders is strangling the population. The blockade
is a slow death. People don't just die as a result of bombs, but also
because their supplies of medications and food are cut off.
SPIEGEL: Israel will only lift the blockade once the rockets are no longer
being fired at its cities.
Assad: If the people in Gaza have only the choice between a slow death
caused by the blockade or death in battle, they will choose to fight. This
is why lifting the embargo is an indispensable part of an agreement. We
agree with Hamas on this point. Basically, Hamas is not the problem in this
conflict, but Israel.
SPIEGEL: Much of the world considers Israel's military action to be
disproportionate. But Hamas provoked it by shelling southern Israel. Each
additional rocket results in more violent retribution and increases human
Assad: That sounds logical. But politics is about realities, not logic. The
fact is that for six months Hamas complied with the cease-fire that had been
agreed upon. The Israeli government, on the other hand, continued to
constrict the Gaza Strip during that time. One has to be aware of this
SPIEGEL: The United States and the European Union see this background
differently. They consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization that wants
to destroy Israel.
Assad: Oh, here we go with the same old labels and cliches. That's the
American way. Whether you call it terrorism or resistance, and whether you
like Hamas or not, it is a political entity that no one can ignore. There is
no truth to the notion that Hamas is holding the people hostage, as some
people claim. Hamas captured an absolute majority of votes in the
internationally recognized parliamentary election three years ago, a
landslide victory. You cannot declare an entire people to be terrorists.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that all of the tools of resistance Hamas is using,
which make it a terrorist organization in our view, are justified?
Assad: Definitely. There is no doubt about it. How can you accuse Hamas of
terrorism without defining Israel's actions as terror? During the most
recent six-month ceasefire, Israel targeted and killed more than a dozen
Palestinians, but no Israeli died. And yet Europe remained silent. More than
1,000 people have already died as a result of the Israeli aggression in the
Gaza Strip. Just this morning, I saw the picture of a three-year-old girl
who was killed. Where is the West's outcry?
SPIEGEL: We can understand the argument of justified resistance against a
military power. But Hamas has acquired its reputation as a terrorist
organization primarily through suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
Do you intend to excuse that, as well?
Assad: I don't want to talk about methods of killing. But what is the
difference between a bomb worn on the body and one dropped from an airplane?
Both of them kill people. Personally, I do not support the concept of
suicide bombings. This is not part of our culture. But whether you condemn
them or not, suicide bombings are a reality.
SPIEGEL: No Western politician wants to sit at the same table with Hamas.
Assad: That's not true at all. Many European officials have sought a
dialogue with Hamas, especially recently.
SPIEGEL: With your mediation?
Assad: The Europeans have learned from experience. That's why they are now
talking to the Hamas leadership here in Damascus -- not publicly, of course.
I don't want to mention any names. But I do think it's telling that they
include people who are especially critical of Hamas in their speeches. We
try to help where we can.
SPIEGEL: The key Hamas representative abroad, Khaled Mashaal, was granted
asylum in your country. He is at the very top of the Israelis' hit list.
Many consider him to be far more radical than the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Are there any conditions to your hospitality?
Assad: Mashaal has changed. He already mentioned the borders of 1967 in
2006. What does that mean? It means that he accepts a two-state solution.
Besides, a few months ago he also said that he would sign anything that the
Palestinian people see as the right thing to do.
SPIEGEL: That's a very broad interpretation. In our view, it is little more
than indirect recognition.
Assad: Talking about the 1967 borders means more than indirect recognition.
We Syrians see it this way: We do not recognize Israel and Israel is still
our enemy -- it occupies part of our country, the Golan Heights. If the
Israelis withdraw from Golan, we will recognize them. First comes peace,
then recognition -- not the other way around. We have been grappling with
our relationship with Israel for more than 30 years now. With Hamas, the
process began only three years ago. You have to exercise patience.
SPIEGEL: But the dramatic situation in Gaza requires more than thinking
within a historic timeframe.
Assad: That's why we are active here in Damascus and have made proposals and
presented them to Hamas, the French, the Turks and the government of Qatar.
SPIEGEL: .which invited countries last week to an Arab crisis summit in
Doha. What do you see as a solution?
Assad: This is my peace plan: First, there must be a cease-fire, and it must
happen at the same time on both sides. In the ensuing 48 hours, but within
no more than four days, the Israelis must withdraw completely from the
entire Gaza Strip.
During this time, negotiations to lift the embargo must take place. This
could take a while, because controlling the borders is a very complicated
issue, but it should take no more than a week. In addition, the people in
Gaza need international guarantees that they will not be attacked again.
SPIEGEL: You make no mention of guarantees for Israel.
Assad: Then Israel will have to make peace, and not just with Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas.
SPIEGEL: .whose moderate Fatah movement, following a bloody internal
conflict with Hamas, now holds power in the West Bank only.
Assad: Hamas must be included. Nothing will work without Hamas. As the next
major step, it will be important to establish unity with in the Palestinian
people. There can be no peace without unity. How they manage to do that is
the Palestinians' business. I cannot and do not wish to apply pressure to
Hamas in this context.
SPIEGEL: Then who should sign a treaty on behalf of the Palestinians?
Assad: Let's look at the reality, which is what matters. Israel and
Hezbollah went to war in 2006. At that time, the Israelis treated Hezbollah
as a terrorist organization, as they do today. Nevertheless, they eventually
signed an agreement that came about as a result of negotiations among the
United States, France, Israel, Syria and Hezbollah. Like Hezbollah then,
Hamas today must be part of an agreement. Otherwise, one cannot expect
anything from them.
SPIEGEL: Large segments of the Israeli government seem to believe that Hamas
could be eliminated.
Assad: Hamas will not disappear. Hamas will not raise the white flag. Hamas
has the trust of the people, and anyone who wishes to destroy it must
destroy an entire people.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe the Palestinians and Israel are capable of complying
with a possible agreement and stopping the smuggling of weapons for Hamas?
Assad: They cannot prevent smuggling as a whole. But monitoring by a third
party would certainly be helpful. I think that the Turks could take on this
task. The Turks are highly trustworthy and influential, and they have good
relations with Israel and the Arab world. On the other hand, the Egyptians
share a border with Gaza, and the French are also very engaged.
SPIEGEL: And the Germans?
Assad: The German foreign minister is active in the region, but he hasn't
come to Damascus yet. We would be pleased to see him here, and we would
welcome it if the Germans, in general, played a larger role.
SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel blames Hamas alone for the Gaza war. Do
you accept the notion that Germany, because of its history, gives special
consideration to Israel?
Assad: No. We understand the feelings of guilt stemming from your past. And
we see that they influence Germany's Israel policies. . They shouldn't
SPIEGEL: Despite all of your criticism of Israel, you yourself negotiated
with the Israelis -- with the help of Turkish mediators -- until recently.
Do you have hopes of regaining the Golan Heights, which were occupied in
Assad: There are no longer any negotiations, not with this Israeli
government. We had no great hopes before, because it was a weak government.
We need a strong party on the other side to be able to make peace.
SPIEGEL: Would your ideal partner be someone like hardliner Benjamin
Netanyahu, with whom you have already negotiated in the past and who is a
favorite to succeed (Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert in the election on Feb. 10?
Assad: He was already the prime minister once before, and he was not a
strong man. Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defense minister, has also been
the prime minister and was also too weak for an agreement. In his memoirs,
then US President Bill Clinton wrote quite clearly that while we were
willing to compromise, Barak was too fearful. As far as the coming Israeli
government is concerned, we will not lose hope. However, the tendency seems
to be for each successive generation in Israel to become more radicalized.
Perhaps the next one won't be interested in making peace at all, but just
SPIEGEL: Isn't that far more applicable to Hezbollah, the Shiite group in
Lebanon with close ties to Iran and Syria?
Assad: Hezbollah presents no danger to anyone.
SPIEGEL: Did you lose your influence with Hezbollah because you withdrew
Assad: Hezbollah is an independent organization that is part of the
government today. And Lebanon is an independent nation, whose sovereignty we
SPIEGEL: Many say that this conciliatory attitude toward Beirut is the
consequence of Syria's involvement in the murder of former Prime Minister
Rafik Hariri. Damascus could face an international tribunal in this context.
Assad: We are not worried about the proceedings. All investigators have
emphasized our cooperation. We hope that the real perpetrators will be
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Washington counts Syria among the rogue states,
partly because of your close relations with Tehran and Iran's nuclear bomb
Assad: I don't believe that Iran is seeking to develop the bomb. Syria is
fundamentally opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We want a
nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included.
SPIEGEL: Other Arab heads of state clearly see the threat of an Iranian bomb
and are concerned about Iran's growing influence. They fear dominance by the
Assad: The Americans are stoking these fears with their information policy.
Washington is interested in the embargo, with which it hopes to weaken Iran.
SPIEGEL: Israeli politicians have developed concrete plans to bomb Iranian
nuclear facilities. What would such an attack mean for the Middle East?
Assad: That would be the biggest mistake that anyone could make. The
consequences would be catastrophic and would destabilize the region for the
SPIEGEL: You yourself experienced what Israel is capable of in the summer of
2007, when the Israeli air force leveled a complex of buildings in
northeastern Syria. You reacted to this attack with great restraint. Why?
Assad: We could have struck back. But should we really allow ourselves to be
provoked into a war? Then we would have walked into an Israeli trap. The
facility that was bombed was not a nuclear plant, but rather a conventional
SPIEGEL: But inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency found
traces of uranium during their inspection. How do you explain this?
Assad: That uranium did not come from us. Perhaps, the Israelis dropped it
from the air to make us the target of precisely these suspicions. If we had
in fact had something to hide, we would not have allowed any inspectors into
SPIEGEL: The inspectors would like to take additional samples and inspect
other Syrian facilities. Why are you no longer allowing the experts into the
Assad: We gave them the opportunity to conduct their research. This is a
political game. They are trying to pillory us. We will not let that happen.
SPIEGEL: So you have no ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction,
not even chemical weapons?
Assad: Chemical weapons, that's another thing. But you don't seriously
expect me to present our weapons program to you here? We are in a state of
SPIEGEL: Do you work closely together with countries like North Korea and
Iran as part of these weapons programs?
Assad: We work trustingly together with many countries on research programs.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect greater cooperation from the new American president?
Will you approach Barack Obama with your own proposals?
Assad: We speak of hopes, not expectations. The Bush administration brought
us two wars. The situation in the world has worsened in every respect in the
eight years. Everything has gotten worse, including economic development.
The Americans must withdraw from Iraq. The new US administration must
seriously commit itself to the peace process. We must help it to do so,
together with the Europeans.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't rapprochement with Washington upset your Iranian friends?
Assad: We are independent. No one can tell us what to do. Our actions are
determined solely by our interests. Good relations with Washington cannot
mean bad relations with Tehran.
SPIEGEL: It is possible that President Obama will ask you to convince Iran
not to build nuclear weapons.
Assad: We would like to contribute to stabilizing the region. But we must be
included and not isolated, as has been the case until now. We are willing to
engage in any form of cooperation that is also helpful when it comes to
America's relations with other countries.
SPIEGEL: Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton has indicated that she
will seek dialogue with Syria and probably Iran, but she also said that
Damascus would have to change its irresponsible, "dangerous" behavior.
Assad: It depends what she means by that. I define our responsibility by our
national interest. If we can agree on that point, then I have no problem
with her statement.
SPIEGEL: Isn't the lack of unity in the Arab world an even bigger problem?
Assad: The Arab world is divided, no doubt. For example, we have had no
direct dialogue with Egypt on the central problem of the Gaza war. We are
not familiar with Cairo's specific position, because we have been unable to
come to terms with Egypt in the last two years. It is not necessarily easier
for us to talk to France, for example. But at least the French are
interested in talking to us.
SPIEGEL: Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that, in the
Middle East, there can be no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.
Assad: This is truer than ever. Peace without Syria is unthinkable.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath and Mathias Müller von
Blumencron. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
IMRA - Independent Media Review and Analysis
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