Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009
Interview with President Bashar al-Assad
By Alix Van Buren
La Repubblica, March 17, 2009
“America today is stronger militarily than at any other time, but politically they are much weaker. Obama will have to restore the American credibility in the Middle East. The first signs are encouraging: by disengaging from Iraq, closing Guantanamo, and by his interest in peace, he is keeping his word. But whether we are at a historical threshold, it is too early to say. Still, one thing is clear: after the dark years of the Bush Administration, there is new hope. Regarding Iran, I am ready in principle to help in a dialogue. With Israel, we had come very close to a deal.”
President Bashar al-Assad is already at work in the early morning in his private study on the slopes of Mount Qassiun. He has a full agenda. The re-admission of Damascus to the good geopolitical society is still recent, after the arrival on March 7 of the envoys sent by Obama to resume the dialogue interrupted by four years of American sanctions. And Assad, solemn in stature, elegant in his blue flannel suit, is busy, so it seems, in renewing the threads of international diplomacy.
The isolation of Syria is virtually over. Old concepts and labels – Axis of Evil, rogue States – have all of a sudden evaporated. So it is natural to ask him: what is required, Mister President, to relaunch an understanding between America and Syria? What should be done to bring it back as it was in the beginning of the Nineties, when Hafez al-Assad and Bush father had succeeded in creating a mutual trust, with the promise kept in 1991 of the Madrid Peace Conference?
“There is a rule, first of all: States act according to their own national interests. As to how far the American and Syrian interests coincide, well I can say it is 80 per cent, leaving out a margin of 20 per cent for the rest, to be on the safe side”.
Such a positive calculation?
“Why not. If we are realistic, and take the fake labels used by Bush, who spoke without believing in it about stability in Iraq, about fighting terrorism and extremism, about a strong and independent Lebanon, about peace in the region, our interests are the same. Now we can cooperate on those dossiers: we are a regional power, America is a global one.”
Would you give us some examples?
“Examples? Here is a first one: Iraq. With the disengagement announced by president Obama, perhaps the most contentious issue dividing us from Washington has been solved. For it was indeed occupation, regardless of all resolutions and support it had. Now we can work together for the stability of Iraq, without which the disengagement can not succeed.”
So how can one guarantee that success?
“By starting a political process, with the final aim of a national reconciliation. A new Constitution must be drafted, which will in turn create new institutions. But especially one must not allow the disintegration of the Country, for there might arise like a domino effect that could have repercussions in the whole region from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.”
But America and Europe are expecting from you an important step towards Iran. Are you willing to take it?
“If we’re talking about an Iranian influence in Iraq, we must make a clear distinction: the influence, in itself, is not negative when it is based on mutual respect. Interference is something completely different. If we’re talking instead of helping to open a dialogue with Tehran, I already said we are ready. But we are waiting for specific proposals to forward to that government. Until now I’ve only been invited to play a role. That is not enough, there is need for a plan, a framework, specific rules to submit to Tehran’s evaluation.”
In your opinion, will Tehran accept?
“Only through dialogue can one hope to succeed. Containing or isolating a country does not work. In fact, in the end it strengthens that Country. And Iran is an important country, whether one likes it or not. The winning way is to cooperate: look at France, it has embarked on that road with success, even with other regional parties.”
Such as Hezbollah and Hamas? Will you cooperate also regarding them?
“Of course, we have already been engaged in the inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Now the most urgent issue is the truce with Israel, and part of it is lifting the embargo imposed on the Gaza Strip because from this issue descend all the problems, including the conflict that we saw. The embargo is like a slow death, Can that be inflicted on a people without expecting a reaction? That is why pacifying the situation is crucial in determining the final result.”
And what about Hezbollah?
“The same is true: if one wants to play a productive and positive role, one must deal with every influential party. There is need for pragmatism, realism. And whether one labels them terrorists or ‘a State within a State’, it doesn’t matter: they are influential parties in the region. But you can already see some important openings: Great Britain is sending signals to Hezbollah, and here in Damascus the delegations visiting Hamas are doing so in the open, no longer in secret.”
Do you see a renewal in the negotiations with Israel?
“In principle, I should say yes, as we Syrians do not bet on the kind of government in Israel, whether it belongs to the right or to the left. The terms of reference for peace are clear to all: they are the Madrid Conference, the United Nation Resolutions, especially 242, the formula of ‘land for peace’, which means full restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria. All that is needed is the will. If they are ready, we are ready. However…”
However, Mister President?
“I don’t see peace around the corner in the next few years. The idea of a Netanyahu government is not worrying, as much as the shift to the right by the Israeli society, mirrored by the vote for Netanyahu. That is the major obstacle to peace. Yet, we had already come very close to a deal.”
When? Before the Gaza War?
“Indeed. Olmert had told the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that he was ready to give back the Golan Heights to Syria. We entered into negotiations. The only item left to discuss were the final details about the line of 1967. Then, we spent a night on the telephone.”
Would you tell us about it?
“Erdogan was on the telephone in Istanbul. Olmert went to Turkey, and had dinner with Erdogan. He was in another room. Erdogan wanted to call me urgently the same day. There was one last obstacle standing before direct negotiations: the acceptation by Israel of a document that defined the line of 1967 through six geographical points on the Lake of Tiberias, the Jordan River and so on.”
Then, what happened?
“We spent several hours on the phone. Olmert kept making maneuvers, we asked him, through Erdogan, a clear word. He asked to postpone the decision by a few days, to go back to Israel to consult with his government. Buth then, four days later, they started the Gaza War. It was another missed opportunity. That is when Turkey got mad: it considered that a deception.”
Is the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 still on the table?
“That will be discussed by the Arab League summit at the end of this month in Doha. The peace plan will probably be dis-activated, like when you turn off the light with a switch, until there emerges a true partner on the Israeli side.”
Yet Obama is talking about a new Middle East Order. Will the American mediation make a difference?
“America is indispensable in its role as a guarantor, as it is a superpower. In addition, Washington can influence Israel more than anyone else. America will still enjoy a leading role in the region, at least until the year 2030. But it is no longer a monopoly: in our new multipolar world there are new actors emerging, and America can no longer act alone.”
What Countries do you have in mind?
“Turkey: it has cultivated good relations with the regional countries, gaining their trust, therefore it has ensured for itself an important role in mediating for peace, where the United States and Europe have failed. But there is also Sarkozy’s France, which today plays a vital role: it has built relations with all the influential parties, it was able to see the movements in the region, and it moved at the right time catching the train that was departing.”
Who is leading the diplomatic effort, Washington or Paris?
“Both, one might say: the Obama Administration is at its first steps, it is still discovering the horizon, therefore it discusses the issues with Paris. As to Sarkozy, you know he showed a strong will to be engaged.”
Mister President, you say you are available in the efforts for peace, in mediating for a dialogue with Iran, but what is the price requested by Syria?
“That is a question I’ve heard many times. But it is the wrong question. This is not about political bribes. I heard talk about Syria requesting the end of sanctions, or the return of an American ambassador to Damascus. But all this does not concern us, it concerns America. The isolation has not weakened us, in fact it strengthened us. What I await in return is the result of the cooperation: the stability that brings prosperity, that defuses terrorism and extremism. I await peace, but that is an end result, I do not have it from America, but from the region, including me, Israel and other concerned parties. In conclusion, what was true in the past, remains true today. I will explain it to you through an anecdote>.”
“My Father, president Hafez al-Assad, in 1990 in Geneva told Bush: “Mister President, non one can face up to your military strength. Yet, if with one hand you hold a gun, with the other one you must hold an olive branch. Only thus do superpowers survive”. So here is the point: for eight years America has made mistakes, it hasn’t used the olive branch, only the gun, achieving nothing positive: rather, it has inflamed the region, spreading extremism and terrorism.”
And now, how to repair that?
“Now we must put out those fires by using the correct instruments, which are complex: first of all it is about development, especially in the economic and cultural field, and political solutions to every hot spot that any extremist or terrorist wants to use as a mantle to cover their political agenda. And lastly it is about exchanging information with the Intelligence, which we will resume with the United States.”
What do you expect from president Obama’s announced speech to the Muslim world?
“There are great expectations regarding a new language that signals respect towards other cultures, that helps to release the tensions in our region, especially from the religious aspect, unleashed by the previous Administration when Bush talked about the crusades. And politics, as we all know, starts also with words, terms and statements that can lead towards a positive or negative direction.”
In this season of openings in the international diplomatic field, how will Syria reposition itself in the arena of democracies? Will it follow through on its promises of civil liberties made at the Congress of 2005?
“We never stopped the reforms. The pace was much slower, that is true. But now that we are less affected by the difficult international circumstances, the pace will pick up. For example by expanding the political participation, having another Chamber in addition to the Parliament, like a Senate, with a legislative role and freely elected, to give more space to the opposition; then, liberalizing more the political media and the Internet to promote dialogue, and finally a law for the political parties. But all that will come about gradually, at or own pace.”
Summing everything up, Mister President, might there appear a brighter horizon?
“Listen, in the beginning there are hopes, signals. Yet, we can…”
That sounds like Obama’s “we can”?
“Well, when Obama said ‘we can’ he was emphasizing ‘we can do’, while those same words in this region mean ‘possibly’. That is conditional. We can ‘if we guard ourselves from the mistakes of the past’, if Europe has learned from the lesson of being absent from the political arena, of being divided because of the Iraq war, if America learns that the army can’t make you a great power, while your credibility and your responsibility can. Only then I can say yes, we are at a historical threshold. But right now it would be exaggerated, we are still at the stage of signs.”
Would you like to meet President Obama?
“Yes, in principle, it would be a very positive sign. But I am not interested in a photo opportunity. We would like to meet, to talk – about what is our plan, about how to find and reach solutions.”