Posted by Joshua on Friday, May 28th, 2010
Charlie Rose interviewed President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus this week. The interview was broadcast on Thursday, 27 may 2010. This is the transcript copied below.
Charlie Rose: I am not the only American who has been here recently. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee was here on Saturday and recently as well. Is something happening in the relationship between Syria and the United States?
Bashar al-Assad: When President Obama came to power, there’s some improvement, at least in the atmosphere. Obviously there are a lot of concrete things happening, moving forward slowly, but the main interest of this administration now and of Senator Kerry is about how can we re-launch the peace process? President Obama is interested in the peace process in general, but the talk with Senator Kerry was about the Syrian track. And I think the main — the crux of the problems in this region is the lack of peace.
Charlie Rose: It is also said that he came here, in a sense, as an emissary of the president. What is it you want to say to the president of the United States about your view of the region, your own strategic sense of what’s possible?
Bashar al-Assad: If I’m going to talk about the region — and you know this region is the heart of the world geographically, politically — you have to talk about the role of a great power, and first of all, the United States. I think the main issue in this region is the occupation, or when you talk about conflict, you have to go to the reason. The reason we have that we have occupied land. At the same time you have Security Council resolutions that mention very clearly the need of Israel to withdraw from these lands. This is the way peace is taught. I think, if I’m going to talk to him, I’ll explain to him all the details in our region, but I will urge him to move faster in order to reach peace in the region.
Charlie Rose: But you have said in an interview recently with Italia newspaper that you have a strategic vision. But it seems that America is engaged in a trial and error. What did you mean?
Bashar al-Assad: We are wondering about what strategy the United States has towards the different conflicts, whether Iraq, Afghanistan, peace process, and any other main conflict. I’m talking about different administrations, not only this administration. The question we ask to many officials is, “What’s your strategy?” They only put the title of stability. Stability is the final — it is the goal of all of — the final stage or the final angle solving all the other problems. So, the United States administrations have been failing, failing, and failing in solving the problems. Why? And this is related to what I said that the region has changed. They have to adopt a different approach to our region. They cannot adopt the same approach.
Charlie Rose: With respect to U.S.-Syria, what would you like to see the United States do?
Bashar al-Assad: In the peace process?
Charlie Rose: In the relationship with Syria.
Bashar al-Assad: You cannot separate the two things because if they want to play the role of the arbiter, they cannot play that role while they are sided with the Israelis. They have to be an impartial arbiter. They’re not, and they were never impartial arbiters since the beginning of the peace process. They have to gain the trust of the different players. If you don’t have good relations with Syria, how can Syria depend on you as an arbiter? So, you have to improve the relations. So, I told the American offshoot that we have to start from improving relations. If you talk about putting Syria on the terrorism act — terrorism list, they have the Syrian Accountability Act in the Congress.
Charlie Rose: Which they just reconfirmed.
Bashar al-Assad: Exactly.
Charlie Rose: With some modification.
Bashar al-Assad: There was the veto of Syria joining the WTO, but it was lifted, so that’s why I said — there are some improvements , but there are still very, very — we have a long way to go in that regard. So, I would like the United States to be fair and to be unbiased in order to achieve —
Charlie Rose: Senator Kerry — has said that Syria is a high priority for this administration. Have they convinced you of that?
Bashar al-Assad: Well, we’re waiting for the results. Without the results — I trust Senator Kerry to start with. I talked with Senator Kerry, and I think he’s genuine, and I met him five times. Not the first meeting or the second meeting. I met him five times under very difficult circumstances, so what he said — he said what he meant — what he means. But, at the end, he’s not the one who’s going to implement. You have the administration and you have the Congress; anyone could put obstacles. So, I think we are looking for the results. Today, I’m convinced about what he said, but I’m convinced that President Obama wants to do something positive in that regard, but I’m not confident that the institution will allow President Obama to do what he wants to do with Syria and in other subjects and issues.
Charlie Rose: You seem to be saying that President Obama has the right ideas, but you’re not sure that he can act on them.
Bashar al-Assad: Not because he cannot but because you have institutions in the United States, you have your political system. It’s not only the president. If it’s only the president, we could blame the president. We say that he didn’t do what he had to do. But you have the institutions and you have the Congress, so it’s not only the ambassador to Syria. He was about to come, but the Congress, the Republican in the Congress, opposed it recently, so the president has to stop. So, that’s why I said it’s not that the president doesn’t want to or he cannot do something. It’s about the whole political system that you have in the United States, and you know more than me about it.
Charlie Rose: But you consider it an act of respect for Syria that they confirm a Syrian ambassador from the United States.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah, but the ambassador is to help your country, not to help my country; I have my ambassadors do that. So, this is not to help the Syrians. This is help to the United States. They have ambassadors anywhere in the world. I’m saying that this is something to deliver to Syria, but I’m just giving an example about a step he wanted to take to improve the relation but somebody opposed it because of the political system that you have.
Charlie Rose: How do you see Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, the northern tier in —
Bashar al-Assad: The northern tier of Iran and Iraq. Normally you should have good relations with your neighbors, something we’ve learned from our experience in the last decades. We’ve been in conflict, Syria and Turkey, Iraq and Turkey, and other countries. What did we get? Nothing. We’ve been losing for decades. We have learned here in the last decade that we have to turn the tide, so everybody is going for good relations with the other, even if it doesn’t have the same vision or they — even if they disagree about most of the things, not some things. So, this relation, Syria/Iraq, we are neighbors. Syria/Turkey, we are neighbors. We’ll affect each other directly. Iran is not my neighbor, but at the end, Iran is one of the big countries in the Middle East, and it’s an important country, and it plays a role and affects different issues in the region. So, if you want to play a role and help yourself and save your interests, you should have good relations with all these influential countries. That’s why this relation, I think, is very normal.
Charlie Rose: There are those in America that would like to believe America can do something that will put some distance between you and Iran, that they can make you less close.
Bashar al-Assad: They contradict themselves. They talk about stability in the region. Stability starts with good relations. You cannot have stability and have bad relations. This is — second, what is the argument? Why do they need to have Syria be away from Iran? They have conflict Iran so what does it mean to put Syria away from Iran? Sometime they talk about the relation between Syrian and Iranian relation and the peace. That’s not true. That’s not realistic because Iran supported our efforts to achieve, to get back our land through the peace negotiations in 2008 when we had indirect negotiations in Turkey.
Charlie Rose: Let me underline that. You believe that Iran, even though it says that it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, when you, through Turkey, were trying to negotiate with the Israelis, the Iranians were supportive of that.
Bashar al-Assad: Exactly.
Charlie Rose: And so you’re saying actions speak louder than words.
Bashar al-Assad: Exactly. That’s what I mean. I feel that they said it inwards, they say publicly we support you. They said it twice during negotiations informally. So you cannot see with one eye.
Charlie Rose: Yes.
Bashar al-Assad: So that’s what’s happening. They see only want to, they hear only what they want to. They ignore the other stand, the same government.
Charlie Rose: Do you think America misunderstands Iran?
Bashar al-Assad: They misunderstand the region definitely. And that’s sometimes normal because it’s different culture very far from me. But after the 11th of September, at least after the 11th of September, we should learn what’s happening behind the ocean. It’s not about what you think. It’s about what we think. You have to understand the society, the culture in this region and in the rest of the world, but this region because it’s complicated more than before.
Charlie Rose: What is it we don’t understand, those in Washington, about the region, about the culture, about Syria’s role, about Iran?
Bashar al-Assad: They don’t understand that we want peace. But if you want peace, doesn’t mean to — if you want to sign a peace treaty doesn’t mean that we accept to sign capitulation agreement. That’s what they don’t understand, the difference between capitulation agreement. That’s how I’m talking about the perception in our region, how we see it, and peace treaty. Peace treaty means having all your rights. This is the second about Iran very clear issue, nuclear issue. It’s about Iran having the right to have peaceful nuclear reactor. You cannot deal with Iran through the Security Council through threats and the evidence that they didn’t understand is the recent agreement between Turkey, Brazil and Iran. And I told the official that I met recently from Europe after that agreement that this is going to be the proof that they didn’t understand this region because Turkey and Brazil succeeded in getting what the world has been asking for during the last year in a few weeks because they understand this region and they adopted different approach which is direct, not strict, not imposing.
Charlie Rose: Their interpretation of what happened between Iran and Turkey and Iran and Brazil is that it’s just another effort by Iran to delay sanctions —
Bashar al-Assad: We disagree.
Charlie Rose: — so they can get on with building nuclear capacity.
Bashar al-Assad: You mean about the 1,200 kilogram?
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Bashar al-Assad: The whole part agreement. Actually —
Charlie Rose: This agreement was intended to delay sanctions and nothing more.
Bashar al-Assad: Iran didn’t talk about sending or making agreement, sending uranium abroad. The five countries as one asked for this and so that’s what Iran did. You can keep saying whatever they do, whatever Iran does, you have suspicion about Iran but the international relation is about, it’s not about trusting, it’s about mechanism. You have mechanism and this mechanism is in the agency, IAEA agency, and you have the NPT treaty, Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Bashar al-Assad: That’s what you can depend, not the trust. You do not have to trust. Trust is something personal. But if you talk about relation, international relation, it’s about mechanism and you have the mechanism. So whether it trusts Iran or doesn’t trust Iran, it’s not the issue.
Charlie Rose: But it is the issue that if Iran had nuclear ability or a nuclear weapon, it would destabilize the region.
Bashar al-Assad: That’s why we need the mechanism of the EAIA. Their role is to make sure that this is civil, not military program.
Charlie Rose: But they say that the Iranians have misled them. The IAEA says Iran has misled us and did not give us the information we needed.
Bashar al-Assad: That happened when they moved the file from the EAIA to the Security Council. But before that, at the very beginning of the issue, remember, there was camera, cameras by the EAIA was set up inside nuclear reactors. So when the problem started politically because of Bush’s intentions, bad intention toward Iran, this is where the problem started. Now I think they have to do two things to take it away from the Security Council because if you treat Iran — if you take any action against Iran, there will be no solution. I think it’s going to be more —
Charlie Rose: The Security Council imposes sanctions, you think what?
Bashar al-Assad: Iran said publicly a few days ago that if they don’t accept this agreement and they go to the Security Council, they will withdraw from the agreement. And if they withdraw from the agreement, this means the problem will be more complicated, and that there means there will be no solution.
Charlie Rose: So therefore we should be supportive, not engage in sanctions from the UN Security Council.
Bashar al-Assad: Of course.
Charlie Rose: Do you believe Iran wants nuclear weapons?
Bashar al-Assad: No, I don’t. No.
Charlie Rose: Why not?
Bashar al-Assad: Because what do you do when you have nuclear bomb? Can you use it? You cannot. Is it deterrent? No, it’s not.
Charlie Rose: Is that what they said to you?
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah, definitely.
Charlie Rose: President Ahmadinejad says to you, the president of Syria, “I do not want nuclear weapons”?
Bashar al-Assad: Every official in Iran said that.
Charlie Rose: And you believe them.
Bashar al-Assad: Of course I believe, because would they do with it? They cannot leave. I mean, what they aim to have it.
Charlie Rose: Then why are they engaged in sort of — in the appearance of some, the IAEA, deception? And they discover these centrifuges inside mountains that they didn’t know about.
Bashar al-Assad: It’s not deception. That’s how you define it in the West. Actually, the five plus one country weren’t — they didn’t come, didn’t come to Iran with good intention. They started with saying you have to stop your program. I have the right to have secret program. Why to stop it? You say you are suspicious, doesn’t matter if you’re suspicious or not, what the mechanism. You should adopt the EAIA. They started making political pressure. And this is where it started — the problem started, not because Iran started to deceive. If they wanted to deceive, they wouldn’t have allowed them to have cameras inside the reactor.
Charlie Rose: But you do believe that if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would destabilize the region.
Bashar al-Assad: We are against any nuclear weapons in the region. We have Syrian draft in the Security Council since 2003, about freeing the Middle East from any WMDs, of course, including Israel. But we cannot talk about Iran destabilizing the region if they have — if you presume they’re going to have nuclear bomb, something I don’t believe in. Why ignoring Israel? Israel started this problem — Israel is the only country who has nuclear bomb in the region, not Iran.
Charlie Rose: If Israel has nuclear weapons, everybody else has not rushed in to have nuclear weapons in the region.
Bashar al-Assad: I don’t know. I mean, when you have — actually, you have reaction. But in Syria, we don’t believe that you should have nuclear weapons in order to deter Israel because I don’t think it’s easy for anyone to say that I’m going to use nuclear weapons.
Charlie Rose: If the United States says to you, we do not approve of your support of Hamas and especially Hezbollah, and we want you to reduce that level of support, what do you say?
Bashar al-Assad: Well, the argument, they only want. Doesn’t matter if they want, what the reason. How can they convince me that I should decree the support? First of all, our support is political because Hamas is a Palestinian organization. The Palestinians have occupied land. They have the right to have their own state. They don’t have. They have the right to have their own land back after ’67, something they haven’t had yet. The same for Hezbollah. The Israeli airplanes are violating the air space of Lebanon on daily basis every few hours, not every day, every few hours. So they have the right to defend their country. Back my answer because they asked me that question many times, that instead of adopting this cherry picking approach, once you talk about Hamas, once you talk about Hezbollah, why do you have the room — the elephant in the room. So let’s talk about the peace. This elephant is the occupation and the Israeli aggression. When you don’t have Israeli aggression, when you don’t have occupation, forget about all these problems. It will be solved ultimately.
But are you saying that if in fact there was an agreement teen the Palestinians, if they were unified, and there was an agreement, that you would be less supportive of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Bashar al-Assad: We support cause, what the cause, the cause that they have occupied land. If they don’t have occupied land, what is support? I don’t have anything to support. They have their own right. I support somebody who has the right, but it doesn’t — I mean he has a right, but they don’t give it back to him. So that’s what we support. We support their cause. When they have states, maybe they have another cause. At that time, we’ll talk about something different. But today, we support their right to have their own independent state.
Charlie Rose: But you were saying you support Hezbollah and Hamas at the level you do because there is no Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Bashar al-Assad: Israel should have stopped violating the air space, should stop launching aggression from time to time against Lebanon or against Syria. That’s their right. That’s what we support.
Charlie Rose: The United States, it is said that Senator Kerry believes that you and Syria have supplied scud missiles to Hezbollah.
Bashar al-Assad: This is very good story, anecdotal story by Israeli. They are very good in making —
Charlie Rose: The story came from the Israelis.
Bashar al-Assad: From the Israelis, yeah.
Charlie Rose: And is it true?
Bashar al-Assad: We told them, what evidence do you have? If you want to say that you have smuggled — because they’ve been repeating this story from time to time, for years, not for a month. And everyone we say, you are scanning the borders between Syria and Lebanon every hour for 24 hours. And you cannot catch any big, big missile, scud or any other one, this is not realistic. This is Israeli allegations. These are for pretenses, national statement. That’s what you can call it, Israeli.
Charlie Rose: But my impression is that Senator Kerry came here on Saturday to say the United States believes this to be true, and the United States believes, according to its own intelligence source that’s weapons have gone. New scud missiles have gone to Hezbollah from you.
Bashar al-Assad: We can only talk about this and discuss it with them when they came to us with the evidence. Why to base your debate on rumors. U.S. took the time. So say do you have evidence, or you only heard? Well, if it’s you only heard, we don’t have to waste our time. You have evidence, you say it to your intelligence, you say the Israeli intelligence, bring these evidences, bring me the pictures, bring me all the information to discuss. Why, if you’re telling me that we believe this is your problem if you believe. I don’t have to waste my time with what you believe or not. We’re not reality. Hezbollah is a strong organization. It’s not weak at all. They have missiles — everybody knows —
Charlie Rose: In fact, they have said that their missiles, they have better and more advanced missiles than they’ve had before.
Bashar al-Assad: How did they know? When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, they didn’t know about the bunkers that they have in the south of Lebanon just few kilometers away from the Israeli forces. How could they know about the advancement that they have? These are rumors. They are afraid and worried about what Hezbollah is doing. Hezbollah, like any other organization, it’s a war. When you have a war, everybody will make his position better and stronger. That’s normal. But I have politician. We don’t waste our time with condemning or blaming or saying that Hezbollah having this and having that. This is reality. You have this reality; you have to deal with it. How do deal with it, go toward the peace. That’s the solution, not waste the time talking about what kind of missile and how many missiles. This is just waste of time. Realistically, solve the problem through the peace process. That’s why we are talking about peace and we are working for peace in order for all these problems. And Israel should know only peace can protect Israel, not creating this propaganda and making up false stories or divisive stories.
Charlie Rose: May I just make sure that I understand this? If Senator Kerry suggested that he believes and the United States believes that you were supplying weapons to Hezbollah, new scud missiles, you are saying, “Absolutely not. We are not doing that.”
Bashar al-Assad: I said no, but at the same time I told him we waste our time with this. When you have evidence, come to us. If they have evidence, we can discuss that, but we don’t discuss it.
Charlie Rose: Do you think it would be the wrong thing to do, that it would be destabilizing to do that, supply weapons to Hezbollah?
Bashar al-Assad: I think what is destabilizing is the Israeli aggression on our region. They attacked Syria many times; they attacked Lebanon. They’ve been attacking the Israeli — sorry, the Palestinians on a daily basis. That’s what destabilized the region. They don’t withdraw from the occupied land; that’s what destabilizing the region, not Hezbollah and any other organization that defends themselves.
Charlie Rose: If the United States comes to you and says, “We want to do things in the region. We want to be a positive force, and we’re prepared to do this. We’re prepared to encourage it and we’ll do this,” and we ask you to stop being so supportive of Hezbollah and Hamas, because we believe that they’re engaged in certain terrorist activities; we ask you to stop supporting them. You are saying that’s not going to happen.
Bashar al-Assad: It’s like if you talk about a chapter in a book. You tell me to read that chapter. I have to read the whole book to understand this chapter. So, in the meantime until peace, I would say of course we’ll be ready to — we would like to see this region free of armament, free of conflict, free of everything, but that will not happen only through talking about one factor while you have the main important factor, which is the occupation, is in place. So we have to solve it as a package, and this package should be peace. There’s no other way. It’s just a waste of time, so we have to go in this way, through the peace.
Charlie Rose: There is this whole sense of Syria and its identification and its relationship to the aforementioned Iran Hezbollah/Hamas, that it is — it’s part of this resistance that gives Syria power and legitimacy.
Bashar al-Assad: You can have this legitimacy as long as you adhere to your rights and to your principles. That’s the political legitimacy you can have. While supporting the resistance, they have the perfect support anyway, whether we support it as a government or not. They have the support of the public in this region. That’s why they are strong, not by the government.
Charlie Rose: Some find it interesting that your allies are Islamist, in one case of theocracy, and yet Syria is a secular state.
Bashar al-Assad: That’s true. And that’s what they don’t understand. This is one of the things that they don’t understand in the West, especially in the United States, because if I support you, it doesn’t mean I’m like you or I agree with you. That means I believe in your cause. There’s a difference. Maybe if we don’t have this cause, we have different debate with them or different relations. While now they have a cause and support the cause, we don’t support organization. We support the Palestinian cause, and Hamas is working for that cause, and the same for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is working for the Lebanese cause, so we support that cause, not Hezbollah, but Hezbollah is one of the means. So, that’s what they have to understand in the West.
Charlie Rose: Speaking of Lebanon and Hezbollah, the withdrawal of Syrian troops, tell me how you felt about that.
Bashar al-Assad: At that time, of course, it wasn’t, let’s say, positive feelings. I’ll put it in that word, because of the reaction in Lebanon after the Hariri assassination and they accused Syria. Today that Syria is different. We were very cooperative with the different delegation that came for the investigation of the Hariri assassination, and it was proven today that there’s nothing to do with Syria. And that changed —
Charlie Rose: The investigation is not over, or it has not been —
Bashar al-Assad: No, no, not over, but from the very beginning we were very sure about — but now the [unintelligible] people know this reality, that Syria has nothing to do with this assassination. I’ve believe Syria’s influence in Lebanon has always been strong because of the geo-political position, not because of the army. The army in Lebanon didn’t do anything, wasn’t involved in politics. Few politicians, few officers and civilians to be involved. The Syrian influence and the Syrian clout feels as strong as it was so we don’t have problem. We don’t look at it as it undermined Syria.
Charlie Rose: So you do not feel like you need to reintroduce Syrian troops to Lebanon?
Bashar al-Assad: No, no. Well, actually we had been withdrawing our troops before the conflict, since 2000.
Charlie Rose: So no Syrian troops in Lebanon.
Bashar al-Assad: We withdrew 63 percent of our troops before the conflict started in Lebanon. That was our intention.
Charlie Rose: Mr. Harari the prime minister has been here a number of times.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: You have a very good relationship. You’ve exchanged ambassadors.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: What do you say to him about his father when he comes?
Bashar al-Assad: The first meeting I told him we have to be as frank as you can even if you think that we were behind the assassination. That’s it. But we didn’t talk about the issue. That was —
Charlie Rose: You basically said you’ve got to be frank and tell me what you think even if you think that Syria was behind it.
Bashar al-Assad: Yes, exactly. If you want to build the relation you have to be fully frank with each other.
Charlie Rose: The relationship with Turkey is very good. Turkey was serving as an intermediary between negotiations between you and the Israelis.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: It came that close in which you would get back the Golan Heights, yes?
Bashar al-Assad: This is very important. What we have now as reference is mainly the United Nations or Security Council resolution. It’s very important reference but it’s not defined. It talks about the land occupied in ’67 but how can you define this land? Israel talking about a different line, how can you define this line, I mean? We wanted in that inquisition to define the line through one point and Israel wanted to define its security requirements. So if we define these two things and we move to the direct negotiation, whenever you have arbiter this arbiter can play its role only through this paper, not like what happened in the ‘90’s when some politicians, some of them with a good will spoiled the process with good will but with enthusiasm but less with a lack of knowledge. And others, self-serving politicians, spoiled it for their own interests. Now we had this paper, anyone who wants to play a role, any mediator, any official, any arbiter, should play it through this paper and this is where we can succeed, not to have 19 wasteful years.
Charlie Rose: You’re prepared to start those negotiations over.
Bashar al-Assad: Of course we are ready. We don’t think it’s time for peace. It’s always time for peace. We don’t say it’s now time or it’s not time for peace. It’s always time for peace.
Charlie Rose: You broke the negotiations off because of the Gaza invasion.
Bashar al-Assad: Syria and Turkey — because Olmert deceived Prime Minister Erdogan four days before the invasion. Prime Minister Erdogan called me on the phone and Olmert was in the other room having dinner and we started talking about the final deals of that paper. And after one hour or actually more than one hour of discussion with Prime Minister Erdogan and even discussions with Olmert, he told me, Prime Minister Olmert told Erdogan that I’m going back to Israel and I will let you know about my final answer in a few days. And the answer was attacking Gaza. That’s where the Turks felt deceived and we felt the same.
Charlie Rose: But you’re prepared to start over?
Bashar al-Assad: Of course.
Charlie Rose: Through Turkey.
Bashar al-Assad: Through Turkey.
Charlie Rose: And is the goal a Syrian-Israeli agreement? Or have you now said it has to be a larger agreement for the Middle East?
Bashar al-Assad: It has to be comprehensive. The Syrian-Israeli agreement could be important step, but it’s not the final step because there is big difference between talking about peace treaty and peace. Peace treaty is like a permanent ceasefire. It’s not comprehensive. There’s no maybe you have embassy, but you actually won’t have the trade. You won’t have normal relations because people will not be sympathetic to this relation as long as they are sympathetic with the Palestinians: half a million who live in Syria and half a million in Lebanon and another few millions in other Arab countries. So comprehensive peace on the Syrian-Lebanese and Palestinian tribe this is going to be the real peace where you have normal relations. This is where we can bury the hatchet, not only to have peace treaty. So that’s how we see it.
Charlie Rose: Do you think it will happen soon?
Bashar al-Assad: From our point of view, it could happen soon if you have another partner because this is about — actually the peace process about two parties. And if you ask me, I will say yes. If you have partner, it will happen soon. But today, we don’t have this partner so far. At this moment, we don’t have a partner.
Charlie Rose: You don’t think Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to make a deal.
Bashar al-Assad: Again, it’s not about him. It’s about the whole government. Can he lead the government toward peace? Is he strong enough to lead this government toward peace? Because you know, it’s a coalition now. It’s coalition. You do not have — he doesn’t have the majority to say I’m going in that direction. So in reality, nothing is happening yet. So why do we waste the time expecting. He’s been for now in his position for a year and nearly a year and a half, something like this. And he couldn’t do anything in peace. So I don’t know if you have the will or he has the power. We don’t know.
Charlie Rose: On the other side of the Palestinians, and they are not unified.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: There’s Fatah, Hamas. Can they be unified?
Bashar al-Assad: Of course they can. If you help them, they can be unified. And they have to be unified. Without unification in the Palestinian really you cannot have peace. You need this unification. It’s not about who is going to sign the treaty. At the end if you want to implement the treaty, you need unification. You need unified policy.
Charlie Rose: And what do you think the possibilities are that Hamas, if there is unification, will support, will support a recognition of Israel and an agreement between the Palestinians so that they will no longer say we refuse the right of Israel to exist.
Bashar al-Assad: And they said that in very clear way when they talked about two-state solution, Hamas.
Charlie Rose: So Hamas is —
Bashar al-Assad: And they —
Charlie Rose: But are they prepared to renounce their charter?
Bashar al-Assad: I wouldn’t answer on their behalf. But what I know publicly now that they talked about the two-state solution, and they talked about the line of ’67. What do you conclude? We can conclude that they are ready. But how, is that the question. Maybe in different ways than what the authority is it doing today. Maybe they have their own way.
Charlie Rose: Do you believe Israel wants peace?
Bashar al-Assad: I think people who elect such extremist government, they don’t want peace. But as in politics, I will say let me see what’s going to happen in reality. I don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop working for peace. If I don’t believe that they want peace, we have to help them believe in peace. They have to learn that only peace can protect their country.
Charlie Rose: What is the biggest thing that’s necessary to make a breakthrough in your judgment?
Bashar al-Assad: You should ask yourself what happened first. Occupation, occupation happened first before the aggression, not vice versa. After — in ’48, after ’48, ’67, in different stages. So definitely, the one who occupied the land should withdraw because my land is like my property. And if you have a thief who takes your property, you don’t make compromise. You tell him first give me back my property, my things. Then we can discuss any compromise. You are don’t discuss the compromise with the thief before having your things returned. So that’s how we see it. So the beginning is to end the occupation. Then you will have [unintelligible] technically.
Charlie Rose: But in the conversations, everything should be on the table, and there should be no preconditions at all.
Bashar al-Assad: We don’t have any conditions. There is only one condition which is international condition, which is the Security Council resolution on which the whole peace process based in 1991. So we don’t have any condition, but we have rights. And rights we don’t discuss. It will go back.
Charlie Rose: Do you believe this region is going to a place where it does not need to look for solutions from the West?
Bashar al-Assad: In the past, we used to think that everything will happen in the West and to be implemented here. Then you will have the solution ready. And you won’t have any conflict. This is really delusional. Actually the reality is that you have to do your own job. But you need the support from the West. But if you don’t have the support, we don’t wait for the West. We are going to go. This is our problem. We are going to go forward to solve our own, but we are not going to wait for the West. But if they support us, that will make the solution better and faster.
Charlie Rose: Is that what you’re saying to Senator Kerry, we cannot wait for you to get involved? We have to move on our own to try to figure out a way to find —
Bashar al-Assad: I don’t remember if I talked about this with Senator Kerry. But I said it everywhere. Whenever we talk about this, this is our position. We said it very clearly that we don’t want.
Charlie Rose: Let me focus again on the dynamic of this region. There is Egypt, which has traditionally had the largest army and the most powerful force. There’s Iran, which has emerged as a regional power after 1979. There is now Syria and Turkey having a very interesting relationship. Some say Syria’s moving more to the East. How do you see the new forces shaping the region?
Bashar al-Assad: The criteria has changed in the positive. They used to say Egypt is a big country, Syria is a small country, but it’s playing a role which is bigger than your size. Of course —
Charlie Rose: — beyond its weight.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah, exactly. Qatar is a very small country. Nobody put it on the political map for inclusion. Actually the criteria has changed. Now we have the will, the vision, and the geopolitical position. We have these three. Qatar has will and has vision. Turkey has the three criteria, the geopolitical position, big country, strong economy, will and vision. It was a strong and it was big 10 years ago, but they didn’t have the will and same vision, so it didn’t play that role, Turkey. So, the criteria have changed. Today you have Iran, you have Turkey, you have Syria, and you have Qatar. If you want to talk about cooperation, for example, regarding the peace, we had a meeting in Istanbul, me and Erdogan and the prince of Qatar, and it was about the peace, because Turkey and Qatar are partners with Syria in the peace issue. So you have a different map regarding different issues. We had a meeting with Iran regarding defending our rights regarding the Israeli aggression, regarding the issue in Iraq. Regarding Iraq, there’s cooperation between Syria, Turkey, and Iran. So you have different [unintelligible]. But all of them in the same region, so this is the new dynamic that we have that depends on every subject.
Charlie Rose: And Russia, where does Russia fit in?
Bashar al-Assad: I cannot tell now because this is the first visit by any president, Soviet or Russian, to Syria during the last 66 years, since the start of the Revolution with Russia. It seems to me that Russia is working to regain its own position but in different way, not like the Cold War during the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s. I think in a new way through having new allies, good relations, strong relations. After he left Syria, he went to Turkey. He signed the [unintelligible] treaty to open the borders between the two countries. Now if you want to look at the space from our perspective, Syria-Turkey, then Turkey-Russia so the relations, strong relations between Russia and Turkey will influence, directly and indirectly, the relation between Syria and Russia in parallel with the direct relation between Syria and Russia. So this is your graphic space. You have to look at it as a map that will affect each other. What about — the effect of these Russian relations recently is too early to judge. I don’t know yet. Economically it will definitely affect the region very soon and the economy will affect the politics. How much? This is something we will have to wait to see. But it will tell you about a new map being created and forged in this region. As you call it, a new dynamic.
Charlie Rose: The United States has always believed that Syria did not do enough to prevent foreigners from coming through your border with Iraq and that it was a huge issue for them.
Bashar al-Assad: The borders are not envelopes to be sealed. You can control, you can monitor something like this so they’re not realistic. This is the second time they’ve mentioned Syria smuggling or helping terrorists to be smuggled inside Iraq. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot because when you help the terrorists in Iraq, they will attack you from in Syria.
Charlie Rose: Exactly.
Bashar al-Assad: It’s known that Syria was the first country, maybe in the world, before all the Arab and Middle Eastern countries and before Europe definitely and before the United States that started fighting with the terrorists and the extremists in the ‘70’s. Actually that started before, in the ‘50’s, but it wasn’t, I mean, the main conflict and when we defeated them was in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. And so we’re not that stupid to go and support terrorists anywhere in the world because terrorists work like the Internet. You cannot control them. They don’t recognize borders. If you have terrorists in Iraq, it’s like having them in Syria. If you have them in Lebanon or in Turkey or in Jordan, it’s like having them in Syria. So it cannot. This is not realistic. Second, I think terrorists — I mean third. Helping terrorists in Iraq means helping the chaos. And chaos is contagious. When you have chaos in Iraq means you are going to have chaos in Syria. It’s going to become more violent, more sectarian, division later. And this division is going to be like going — will affect the region from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East.
Charlie Rose: So if I would talk to the Americans today, they would say to me there were many things that could you have done that you didn’t do. Yes, you can’t close your border, but you allowed too many —
Bashar al-Assad: Let me give you the other example. In 2004, or maybe ‘5, I’m not sure, a delegation, big delegation, from the Pentagon from the State Department, from the army and the intelligence came to Syria to ask for cooperation. And we told them, send us delegation to see what kind of cooperation we can have on the borders, the same delegation, that delegation left Syria, and they didn’t come back again. We have the same issue recently in the autumn, last autumn.
Charlie Rose: Yes.
Bashar al-Assad: When they asked for cooperation and I said we are ready to have cooperation to control or to monitor the border in Iraq, until today, we haven’t received delegation. And I think — did I say Senator Kerry about, and I told Senator Kerry about this.
Charlie Rose: What did he say?
Bashar al-Assad: He cannot answer because he had to go back to see what’s happening. So that’s not true that we are not ready. We would like to have this monitoring. But monitoring the border needs two sides, need the Syrians and the Iraqi side. And the prime minister of Iraq came to Syria, and he asked me for this cooperation. Said we are ready to start, try to do it –Syria and Iraq, including the United States. But if you go to the border, and if you look at the Iraqi side, you won’t see any soldier, any police, anybody. It’s empty. So if they want to control the border, they have to do their job with the Americans or Iraqis.
Charlie Rose: Do you think that the American withdrawal from Iraq will go well and on time?
Bashar al-Assad: This is not our debate. This is wrong debate that has been circulating in the media during the last two years, especially in the United States, whether to leave or not to leave. Actually the question is how to leave, how to leave with the political process. The answer will be through what political process are you going to launch and support in Iraq? Then when you leave, it’s going to be better. The situation will be better at that time. You can be committed. Now, any time — of course we support the idea and the principle that the United States should leave Iraq. But that doesn’t mean we make it better or worse. It’s worse. It’s going to be bad if you leave. So what we are worried about, if the United States is going to support or launch a good political process where they can reconcile all the Iraqis, then they will have constitutions and the new institutions. And this is where we’re going to say thank you.
Charlie Rose: But they would like to have your help in doing that.
Bashar al-Assad: We are ready. We are helping the Iraqis now. We told the Iraqis already to — for any help. But there is not a real dialogue between Syria and the United States regarding Iraq.
Charlie Rose: There is no dialogue between Syria —
Bashar al-Assad: Between Syria and the United States regarding Iraq. They only talk about borders, and they only talk about terrorists, because they deal with the terrorists like playing a game on the computer where you have terrorists, and they have to shoot him. That’s how they deal with the terrorist issue. They don’t understand that terrorism fighting means having the atmosphere, the normal situation, fighting the chaos. You cannot fight the chaos while you have political anarchy. You should have normal government with the police, with the army, with the normal situation, normal political situation. This is where you don’t have chaos, this is where terrorists fail. They cannot do anything.
Charlie Rose: So what is your big challenge today?
Bashar al-Assad: The biggest challenge is how can we keep our society as secular as it is today.
Charlie Rose: As secular.
Bashar al-Assad: Secular — the society, not the government. It is secular. You have diversity, very rich diversity in Syria we are proud of. But at the end, you are part of this region. You cannot stay unrelated to the conflicts from the conflicts surrounding you. If you have sectarian Lebanon on our west and sectarian Iraq on our east, and you don’t have the peace process solved on our southern border, and you have the terrorists dominating the region, and let’s say growing with leaps and bounds, you will be affected some day. You will be — you will pay the price. So it’s not about being passive and saying I’m going to protect myself. How can you be active and expand what you have to the other? So the challenge is the extremism in this region.
Charlie Rose: But the extremism some people believe — those people who are never secular, who in fact find in religion a cause.
Bashar al-Assad: They always use religions to assume — to assume the mantle of religions or Islam, whatever, in order to have followers. They only assume it. I don’t think they are convinced about what they are doing. Some of them, they are ignorant. They believe it. They think they are helping the religion this way. But at the end, it’s not about those, about — it’s about the others. How can they influence because, I mean, you always have extremists in everything. In politics, in religions, in Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism, in every religion, you have extremism. But it’s about how much can they influence the society. As long as we have open-minded people, you don’t worry about them, they are going to be isolated. So I’m not worried about what meant to be the few to convince the other, only about how much the other can protect himself from them.
Charlie Rose: But as I listen to you say that, it seems an incongruity between saying that and looking at who you have great relations with and who you support in the region.
Bashar al-Assad: That’s why I say it’s not about who is like you and who is not. It’s about the cause. They have cause they have to support. And this is the second — there’s not extremist if you —
Charlie Rose: Hezbollah is not extremist?
Bashar al-Assad: No, it’s not. They support peace. If you want peace, they support peace. They believe in Islam as — to be the government in their country. This is their freedom of — this is — I mean, they are free to think whatever they want. But they never try to implement it by force. This is where you cannot blame a rebel as an extremist. The extremist wants to force you to go in certain way. And sometimes they attack you, and sometime they kill you. This is extremism, not to have your idea, your idea, of course we’re going to have different ideas, different currents, political currents and treaty currents. That’s normal. And this is the diversity that we have. But they are not extremists because they never try to implement by force their doctrine.
Charlie Rose: If Israel would retreat to its ’67 boundaries, would you encourage Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah to recognize their right to exist and reach a full agreement with them?
Bashar al-Assad: If you talk about a treaty, part of the treaty will be this recognition and signing the treating are the governments. And when you talk about the peace, you talk about Syrian track/Lebanese track means Syria and Lebanese governments, and Palestinian track, Palestinian government. When the governments recognize Israel and Israel is committed to the treaty, I think the whole mood, the whole atmosphere on the popular level will change, for everybody will go in that direction. But the recognition that you’re talking about will come from the government, not from the people. The people will reflect their recognition by normal relations, by trade, by tourism, as I said, and any other kind of relation. If Israel is committed, I’m sure the people will be very positive in that action. That takes time. To be realistic, that will not happen overnight. Conflict for 60 years, a treaty is not enough to change it overnight. It takes time. It needs procedures. You start building the trust after the treaty, so, how to win the trust, that will take time. But I’m sure normal relations will be dominating between Israel and neighboring countries. There’s no doubt about this. Whether Hezbollah, Hamas, or any other one. At the end, they are organizations; they have people, they have grassroots. The grassroots part of this society will be affected, so of course it will. And we’ll encourage it. Of course we’ll encourage it, because we always ask for peace.
Charlie Rose: People say, and this is about you over the presidency, you are your father’s son. That today you have emerged as your own person. Do you feel that?
Bashar al-Assad: In my house, I’m the son of my father, but in this position, from the very first time, I should be the president who has taken the responsibility of everything. And if I was the son of my father in the way they mean it, I wouldn’t have succeeded in dealing with the very difficult circumstances. So, I wouldn’t look at myself in either way. I look at myself as somebody who has a responsibility, who did what he’s convinced about, and is convinced that this is for the sake of his people.
Charlie Rose: Do you believe you have consolidated your power so that you can take more risks now?
Bashar al-Assad: No, I didn’t consolidate my power. I have more support by the public. That’s what I have during the last few years.
Charlie Rose: And how do you think you gained that?
Bashar al-Assad: I think because they believe that I work according to a national agenda. That doesn’t mean I was fully right. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made mistakes. But if you made mistakes according to a good will and based on national agenda, nobody will blame you. They will support you because you are human and you’re going to make mistakes. So, that’s how I, again — because I said everything — every decision we have to take should be 100 percent Syrian; not 90 percent: 100 percent. And that’s what did it. That’s how I gained the support. That doesn’t mean that they agree with me in everything. Support is different from agreeing with. They don’t agree. We agree about different issues, but they support means the trust. Even if you go towards peace when we started negotiations in Turkey, doesn’t mean everybody supported that negotiation. Maybe this time, maybe the wait, maybe the timing; you have different point of view. But at the end, they trusted you that you are going for a good thing, whether you fail or not, but at the end you have good will and they trust you. That’s how you get it.
Charlie Rose: It’s a pleasure to see you in Damascus. Thank you very much, as always.
Bashar al-Assad: Thank you.
Charlie Rose: All right, thank you.