Posted by Joshua on Friday, December 15th, 2006
The indomitable and charming Alix Van Buren interviewed President Bashar yesterday for La Repubblica in Italy. She sent me this English translation which includes 40 lines cut from the printed Italian version. Alix was also the first Western reporter to interview Asad following the Hariri murder, translated here on Syria Comment. The following are remarks Alix included in a note:
I did it again. Here is a rough translation of my interview with President Bashar, published today in La Repubblica. It is the first one he gave after the release of the Baker report.
Damascus misses you! One very notable development that sums up Bashar's growing strength: he has earned the title of "Presidente Assad". People have stopped referring to him as Docteur or Bashar. When they now say President Assad it is very clear that it is him, not his Father.
In person, he looked great – confident, relaxed, physically well fit.
New banks and shops opening up everywhere, with yet other signs of "Opening soon".
David Ignatius published an interview with Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in the Washington Post as well today. Interestingly enough, they repeat some of the same lines, which confirms Moallem's insistence that he is speaking for the President when Ignatius asked him if his views represented those of the President. President Bashar's interview is more colorful and detailed. Many thanks to Alix. Her interview follows:
President Bashar al-Assad announces his choice: “I want to be a man of peace”.
Interview with President Bashar al-Asad
by Alix Van Buren of La Repubblica, Italy
He extends to Israel an olive branch: “We could live side by side in harmony and peace”. And then he challenges Olmert: “Move towards peace. Talk to Syria, and as many Israelis say, “even if you suspect it is a bluff, you have nothing to lose”. Adding a caution: “But when a government is weak, like the one in Israel, one can expect everything, even war. You need a strong government to make peace: peace is much more difficult than war”.
He advises Europe: “The EU should have its own vision, rooted in its history and civilization, acting as a bridge between the Arab world and the United States”.
He expresses trust in Prodi’s Italy: “He knows our region”.
The Syrian president al-Assad looks in good shape. Two years of diplomatic and economic isolation don’t seem to have tarnished his shine. The Baker plan, with its request that the White House revise its politics in the Middle East, has brought him back to the center of the international stage.
Tall and slender in a blue flannel suit, sitting in a velvet armchair in his presidential studio, he is busy, so it seems, knotting together the threads of diplomacy with the serene look of one who has recently savoured vindication. In the Damascene morning, the message is extremely clear: without Syria there is no war, but without Syria there is no peace, Kissinger’s old adage has been polished anew. But beyond the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain framed by the window, and down from the Israeli coast, he suspects hidden surprises, possible incursions.
Mister President, two years ago you said America one day would come knocking on Syria’s door. Was this a prophecy or a threat?
"Listen, before the war in Iraq I told them: you are going to sink in the Iraqi swamp and you will need someone to extract you. Later, everything we said happened. But it was neither a prophecy nor a threat. Rather, this is what we have learned from our experience in the region. We live in this region, we know the course of the events, and it was proven that depending on military power alone will lead you nowhere. They need a vision. And many recommendations in the Baker report are in harmony with our vision”.
“Here is one: they need somebody to help them to formulate a vision. Because if you ask them what is your vision towards Iraq, you realize they have no vision. Second, the report talks about the need for a comprehensive peace, linking the different issues in the region to the problem of occupation, in Palestine and the Golan Heights, as we always said before the war and now. Third, it recognizes the central role of Syria”.
Is Syria willing to cooperate? Washington is asking Syria to play a constructive role.
“Of course we are willing. Because we have an interest in solving the regional issues – Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon – because we, the neighbouring countries, will be affected more than the others. But to cooperate it is not enought to have the will, nor are we the only players. To achieve a result you need all the regional and the international players around the table: the countries bordering Iraq and Israel, the United Nations, Europe and also China and Japan. And you need to get some agreement about the vision of the future from all these parties”.
Can Syria’s interests coincide, at least temporarily, with those of the United States?
“Yes, if America is willing and honest: when they say we need a unified Iraq, when they say they need to stop the violence, we have common interests. When they mention the word “peace”, if they are serious, we can work together on all these issues. But I doubt that Washington’s perspective coincides with our own”.
Why, Mister President?
“Because the problem with this Administration is that they mix dialogue with instructions. Judging by Bush’s declarations a few days ago, they do not acknowledge reality, they do not want to admit they were wrong.
So is it a matter of time? Are they going to make a gradual U-turn?
We don’t know. Still they have not learned that Syria does not take instructions, it cannot be bossed around by others. States always work for their interests. We do not work for others’ interests. And these interests for Syria are recognizing our occupied land and the whole situation in the region. Will America recognize them? This is the main question”.
Bush said “Syria knows what it must do”: according to him, you must renounce your alliance with Iran, stop supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi terrorism.
“Regarding the infiltration of terrorists in Iraq, they do not believe thier own accusations when they make them. They know that it is not true. If you ask them in private meetings, they say that Syria did a good job of stopping the inflitration of foreign fighters. Why support would we support them? They go and kill Iraqis. But if you want to talk about terrorism, I took the initiative after September 11 to tell the Americans we have the same enemy and we are ready to cooperate”.
Did you do so?
“We tried, for four years. We had more than one meeting at among intelligence leaders, actually they have lots of information, but they do not have the knowledge, how to analyze information. So we stopped cooperation with them in 2005: the result was counterproductive, because we risk losing the battle against terror”.
But going back to Hamas and Hezbollah. Do you consider you were on the winning side in supporting them?
“We do not side with any organization. One of our principles is that if this organization represent the majority of people then we have to deal with it. The landslide victory of Hamas at the elections proved that we were right, because we stood by the majority of the Palestine people. The same applies to Hezbollah. But there is a second aspect: we share the same problems. We all have occupied lands, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Syria. And we have the same occupier or, if we want to be honest, the same enemy”.
You mean Israel? Is it the eternal enemy?
“No, when there is peace. You can live in peace and harmony side by side, but first of all you must achieve peace”.
What are the main obstacles?
“There are no obstacles in Syria. We have the full support of the Syrian people to achieve peace because we are going to get back our land. The real question is, Is Israel ready to accept peace?”.
Prime minister Olmert said the time is not yet ripe to open a dialogue with Syria, and that the Bush Administration is against it too. How do you respond?
“This means they do not want peace. But the most important thing, as you said, is that Washington doesn’t want that. This means this is a weak government, it allows Washington to take the decision instead of the Israeli government. But let me tell you this: you need a strong government to achieve peace. Weak governments can make war but cannot achieve peace. Peace is much more difficult than war”.
Did you hear the speech by the Israeli writer David Grossman? He invited Olmert to accept your offers of peace.
“I do not know Grossman, but he is right. Besides, most of what we read from Israeli writers leads in the same direction in blaming Olmert. They ask him, “Why don’t you listen? Why don’t you deal with the Syrians even if they are lying? You won’t lose anything”. So why doesn’t he try? No one can say “I don’t want to move towards peace. This is something new”.
The Israeli military intelligence said Syria is massing earth-to-earth long range missiles along its borders, has learned lessons from the war in Lebanon and is preparing for a military campaign. Mister President, is the intelligence correct?
“You know we are still in a state of war with Israel because the still occupy our land. Secondly, we have to anticipate that Israel could launch a war against Syria at any time. They say in their statements that they may think of war against Hezbollah and Syria next summer. Third, they attempted to violate our airspace several times in the past five years. They even attacked the Syrian army. So it is not a fantasy to say that war is a possibility in our region. And it is normal to prepare yourself for such a war, and one of the ways to prepare yourself is to learn lessons from other wars, especially the neighbouring wars. But that doesn’t mean that “massing missiles” is a correct description”.
And what about Syria rearming Hezbollah, as Israel maintains?
“Listen, they have satelllites, they have all the Unifil soldiers, all their intelligence in Lebanon, of the army, of the government, while we have none in Lebanon. With all these people and means, why do they not stop the rearmement, if it is true? When you talk about a missile, it is five or six meters long. It is not a drug that fits in your pocket! So what they say is not logical”.
Does Syria support the UN resolution 1710 on disarming Hezbollah?
“We have some reservations on it but we support it because we want to stop the war and we want stability in Lebanon because the Lebanese in the end are paying the price and we are going to pay the price with them. That is why we support it. But we said it is a temporary solution. Like a cease-fire, if you do not follow it up with political action, like working for peace, it can not last long. We’ve already seen it happen in 1996. After ten years and one month you have this war”.
Regarding your ties with Hezbollah, at the G8 a microphone left on recorded an exchange between Bush and Blair. Bush said “…all that is needed is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to quit all that s**t, and everything is over”. Can you really stop Hezbollah with a wink of your eye, if we wish you to do so?
“No, this is an exaggeration. They want to depict Hezbollah as a Syrian or Iranian puppet. Hezbollah represents a large part of the Lebanese. They have their own interests and their own vision which we share with them. We have a dialogue with them and, of course, with many Lebanese parties. They trust Syria and because of that we can have influence. But it does not mean that if we go against their interests they will listen to Syria”.
Yet Bush and Siniora accused you of interfering in Lebanon, of attempting a “coup d’etat” against the government in Beirut through your support of Sayyed Nasrallah. How do you respond?
“The more I hear the statements by the current American Administration, the more I am convinced that when they see something, they see it in the opposite way. They can not understand the situation in Iraq, how can they understand Lebanon and Syria? We have an interest in the stability of Lebanon, so we cannot be with one party against the other. Sharing the vision of Hezbollah does not mean supporting it against the others. We support every matter of consensus about the Lebanese. It will take time before this consensus emerges. Then we will support it. We want to be in the middle, always”.
So it is not true that you want to regain influence in Lebanon?
“We have influence in Lebanon, we never lost it. But that does not mean interferance. Our influence does not come from a relation with a super power. We get it from our history and our geography. It is a geopolitcal position. You see, Lebanon and Syria used to be one region, and this applies also to the surrounding region, including Iraq. We have the same families, same language, same tradition. As for the geographical ties, Lebanon is surrounded by Syria, the depth of Lebanon is Syria. But it is a two-way relationship: Lebanon also has influence in Syria because of its position and its social ties”.
Why are you so much against the Hariri international tribunal?
“We are not against it. We have an interest to cooperate with the investigation Commission to uncover the truth of the crime. But this is different from the international tribunal. First of all, they did not consult us. The tribunal is a treaty between the United Nations and the Lebanese government. We are a State, we have our Constitution and laws. And without a treaty, we cannot allow any tribunal to work in the place of our government. It is like giving up your sovereignty”.
Mister President, you talk about peace, about consensus. Yet one of your closest allies, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad, says he wants to wipe Israel off the world map. How does that fit with your quest for peace?
“Iranians are not against the peace process. We have had long-term realations with them for three decades now. They never tried to stop us from starting the peace talks, not in the past and not now. As to his words, you may read what they said in Haaretz a few days ago: “No Palestinians. No Palestine. No Problems”. They have to listen to the echo of their words. They have to expect that somebody in the region, and I am not talking about President Ahmadinejad, may say “No Israelis. No Israel. No Problems”. They started this logic”.
But organizing a Conference on the Holocaust goes over the lilits, wouldn’t you say?
“Europe has a complex with the Holocaust. We don’t, it was not us who perpetrated it. Europe and America talk about freedom of speech. There was this novel about Christ having a child, the “Da Vinci Code”; how do you discuss this but not the Holocaust? It is not the history of God, it is the history of human beings”.
So what is at the core of your alliance with Teheran?
“Teheran supported Syria. That’s enough. The whole world wanted to isolate Syria and they stood beside us. They told me to separate from Iran and I asked them why. They supported us in every aspect. It is as simple as that. Besides, let me add. Iran is an important country, therefore Europe and America have to talk with it, and we have to have good relations with Iran for the stability of the region, including that of Iraq”.
Can Syria help stabilize Iraq?
“Again, we are not the only player. We can support a national Iraqi conference between the different factions with regional support. This is one way. We have good relations with most of the Iraqi parties. We also resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq which were severed after Saddam came to power.
However when talking about Iraq, one must not lose sight of the larger picture. As I said, all the different issues in the region are linked to the problem of occupation. The Baker report is very clear on this point: it starts with Iraq but it ends up talking about peace, about the need to address occupation, the peace process, and “land for peace”. If you do not talk also about Palestine and the Golan Heights, you cannot solve any other problem”.
Is the Madrid Conference on your mind?
“This is the only appropriate base for the peace talks. The principle of Madrid was clear: “Land for peace”. Much was achieved during the Rabin government, and anyone who wants to start from point Zero does not want to achieve peace because it means they don’t agree on things already agreed on. As to the centrality of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world, those who do not recognize it are not realistic: they will achieve nothing”.
Did you get positive reactions form the European envoys that came to Damascus?
“When we talk about Europe, it should be a bridge with the United States. It should use its history with the region, its heritage as a continent with its history and civilization. It should not limit itself, as sometimes happens, to come to our region with American ideas, to convince us. But the role of Europe is limited by the role of the U.S. And also by its own internal divisions, before the war in Iraq and now. We cannot talk about Europe as such, but rather about some players, such as the role by Italy and Spain”.
Do you expect positive results from the dialogue with Italy?
“Our relation with Italy has improved a lot with Mister Prodi. I know him personally since he was the President of the EC. He knows our region and understands the events very well. Sometimes Italy and Syria see things from different angles and this is normal. The other side is that he has credibility and this is very important for cooperation. But we are still at the beginning of the dialogue. It must mature, because we live in international circumstances where Italy and Syria alone are not enough, we have to move with the rest of the players, with a common vision”.
You are speaking again like a central actor of hte internationa scene. Do you feel vindicated now?
“You must remember than a little more than one year ago America said we were irrelevant, weak, that we had no role. The latest developments have vindicated us. Actually, whoever talks about isolating Syria is isolating themselves from the region. If you look at many countries who participated in the attempts of isolating Syria, now they cannot play any constructive role”.
Who are you thinking about?
“Let’s say France for example. If you talk about the peace initiative by France, Italy and Spain, we cooperate with Rome and Madrid. But not with Paris: because of their policies, because they no longer have the crredibility to play such a role”.
Has the isolation exacted a price from Syria?
“Quite to the contrary, we are stronger than before. Politically and economically. In 2005 we had the largest investments of the past fourty years. There was more tourism, we reached a growth rate of 4.5 per cent compared to a negative growth rate in the year 2000. We want more, but given the difficult circumstances these growth figures were surprising results. We depended on ourselves, on our own pillars.
So was the American isolation ineffective?
The people in the region as whole are against US policies. And when it is so, you can not impiment them. Our policy is based on the will of the people. That is why we are very strong. We became even stronger than before”.
Some would object that during this time there was in Syria a tightening of liberties. That the promises of reform lagged behind. That civil right activists and political dissidents were imprisoned for their opinion, the most quoted case is that of Michel Kilo. How do you reply to such criticism?
“Firstly we don’t allow anyone to interfere in our domestic issues. We know what to do, whether we do it right or wrong. This is our contry. Second, Michel Kilo did not go to prison because he had a different opinion. He was tried in a normal court. He has a relation with a party in Lebanon which publicly invited the United States to attack Syria and occupy Damascus. This party is against Syria according to the law”.
Regarding the support of the people, do you feel stronger in Syria?
“You have to ask the Syrians. One cannot be a dictator, as they say, and have good relations with the people and have stability and growth in the country at the same time. It is impossible. If you are a dictator, there will be chaos and many people will leave the country”.
Mister President, do you still want to open up the Syrian society to democracy?
“Political and economic reforms procede in tandem. But there is an issue of priorities. Which means one you have to focus on more. What is urgent in Syria? Poverty. This is the most important challenge. We don’t say we’re going to focus on the political side and not the economic but rather we look for what the people want.
But in the end that is why I want to be a man of peace. When there is peace you will have prosperity in the broader sense. Economy, society, culture, all are related it. So you can be a man of war or a man of peace. I have made my choice. Peace is central if you want to leave a finger print in the history of your country
For those interested in comparing Ignatius' interview with Moallem, I copy it for the record.
Interview With Syrian Foreign Minister," by David Ignatius in Washington Post.
Here's the transcript of the interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem conducted on December 14, 2006 in Damascus, Syria.
Q: Ignatius: Perhaps you could begin by giving an overall view of the Baker-Hamilton Report
A: Moallem: During my work in Washington (as Syrian ambassador in the early 1990s) I knew Baker and I knew Hamilton. I know their objectivity. I know that both of them and others on the (Iraq Study Group) committee who I used to know have vision.
The first question Baker asked me when we met in New York (in September 2006) was: Walid, how can we return to the Syrian-American situation of the early 1990s, when we succeeded to build mutual trust? I told him: This is our wish also in Syria.
But how can we make it? We need to ask ourselves one question: Has the prior American policy against Syria–isolation–worked or failed? I think from what we are seeing in the region today, it failed. What will be another option? The challenge is to adopt policies of engagement. The method is dialogue.
Why is this challenging? Through dialogue, no side can stay in his position. Constructive dialogue means both sides have to meet. We can call it a 'common ground.' Through an engagement policy, you agree on certain principles and goals.
What are Syrian goals in the region? There are three: Peace, stability and prosperity. These are the Syrian goals. Are these three goals contradicting American national interests in the region? I don't think so.
–If we tackle first the issue of peace: The American administration knows that during our previous direct talks with the Israelis (during the early 1990s) we achieved 90 percent of the agreement. We lacked the political will from Israel to achieve the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel. Is it contradicting American interests to continue the path of Madrid (the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which laid the ground for subsequent Israeli-Syrian peace talks) on the same basis?
I wonder why the administration is preventing Israel to go on this path of peace, to secure its northern border. I wonder why this administration failed to achieve the question the late Prime Minister Rabin asked: What is the meaning of peace between Syria and Israel? When I say this, I mean a comprehensive peace–including Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon. But as foreign minister of Syria, I will speak on behalf only of Syria.
Q: You referred to Bush administration efforts to prevent Israel from negotiation with Syria. What are you referring to?
A: I have been told this in New York by Americans who are attached to peace. Why is this administration preventing Israel?
Q: When did this happen?
A: Immediately after the war between Israel and Lebanon. (August 2006). In Israel, there is a weak government. This means that this government needs encouragement from Washington to move on the way to peace. If this administration put on its priorities peace in the Middle East, why didn't they (encourage the Israelis). Is this an administration for war only?
In December 1990, when President Hafez al-Assad met President Bush the father in Geneva, Assad told Bush: Mr. President, no one can challenge your military strength. But we understand when you hold in one hand the gun, you need to hold in the other the olive branch. This is how superpowers can survive. President Bush the father was honest to his promise. After the ceasefire (in the 1991 Gulf War) in March, Secretary Baker in April moved to call for a Mideast peace conference. This is how we understand the responsibilities of a superpower.
–Second, I turn to regional stability. Is it contradicting American interests? I don't think so. How do we achieve this when the administration is at a crossroads. Either we go for stability or the region will fall, and religious civil wars and the extremists behind them will take over. Will this serve U.S. interests?
It is not useful for anyone to tackle the deep concerns in the region by giving us tablets of aspirin. You need to tackle the biggest issues. One of them is a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will lead to a solution in Lebanon, immediately. It will help Iraqi stability and security.
Syria always asked America to change its behavior. The Syrians are asking the Americans: When you are showing keenness on Lebanese stability and Iraqi stability, why do you try to de-stabilize Syria? If you want us to have constructive dialogue, you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability.
–Third, prosperity. If you achieve peace and stability, you can focus on prosperity. Prosperity in the region has an effect on illegal immigration, terrorism, poverty. All these objectives serve our interests and the Americans'. So the question here is: Why do you sanction Syria?
We are ready for constructive dialogue to achieve these three objectives, based on our knowledge that you need to take history and geography into account. We are in the middle of three crises–Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinians–and you are far away.
Q: Let me ask you to discuss the specifics of the Baker-Hamilton report. Do you support the report?
A: There are many positive elements in this report. But it is not a Bible or Koran. This is the first time there is a report on the desk–another plan for the administration. We are not the decision-makers. It is up to the president to decide.
We say: We are not against the U.S. To the contrary, we want to be part of a regional dialogue that in our opinion serves American interests in the region.
Q: Let's go through the specific recommendations in the report that concern Syria. The first is recommendation 4, which calls for an Iraq Support Group composed of Iraq's neighbors and the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council. Would Syria join in such an Iraq Support Group?
A: I will explain: I went to Iraq (in November 2006). I spent three days there. When others visited they have spent three hours. I met with all the Iraqi leaders. I discussed issues with them on the basis of agreed principles. One, the unity of Iraq. Two, the independence of Iraq. Three, an agreed timetable of withdrawal between the U.S. and Iraqi leadership.
When I refer to a timetable, it is not to offend the U.S. To the contrary. It is a timetable for withdrawal and building Iraqi security. They will go in parallel. It is not a timetable of immediate withdrawal.
Q: Do you have in mind a time frame? What about the Baker-Hamilton suggestion of early 2008?
A: It is not up to me to answer. It depends on Iraqi ability to take over security. Immediate withdrawal? This is an immoral step. Iraq must be prepared to take over. It is not a duty (for the US military in Iraq) of fighting. It is a duty of training.
Iraq is similar to Lebanon. You cannot rule Iraq by majority. You rule Iraq by consensus. All Iraqi groups have to participate in the political process. The first steps must start with the Iraqis themselves. They need to end existing divisions within themselves. They need to agree on the constitution, unity, the distribution of wealth, dismantling of militias. When they reach agreement on these, they need to start preparation of a national reconciliation conference. Even their legislation of uprooting the Baath (de-Baathification), they realize they need a change, to uprooting the Saddamists.
(Moallem goes off record to describe his conversations with the leaders of each of the main groups in Iraq. He agreed to allow me to summarize the basic outlines of his advice: To the Kurds, don't secede; to the Shia, recognize that you can't rule Iraq alone and work with the Sunnis; to the Sunnis, recognize that old system of Sunni rule is gone and work with the Shia.)
Q: But what about the Baker-Hamilton idea of a regional Iraq Support Group? Should that come later?
A: The Iraqi consensus (after it is reached) has to be supported by the neighboring countries. That is the third step, after Iraqi agreement on issues and the national reconciliation conference. The third step is a meeting between Iraqis, their neighbors and the five members of the UN Security Council.
Q: Let me return to the specific recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Report. Recommendation 12 says the U.S. and the Support Group should encourage Syria to do three things: control its border with Iraq to the maximum extent possible, including joint Syrian-Iraqi patrols; open a Syrian hotline to Iraq; increase Syrian political and economic cooperation with Iraq.
A: Leave that language aside. These are Syrian ideas that have been offered to the Iraqis. Tomorrow we will have the Iraqi interior minister in Syria, for talks based on these ideas. We will have 22 generals coming, from the Defense ministry, the Interior ministry. We are not doing this to please the US. We are doing what is in the Syrian and Iraqi interest. We promise to do things with Iraq, and we started doing them Dec. 11, when we raised flags at our two embassies. The next step is security arrangements, economic arrangements.
Q: So you are already doing the things mentioned in recommendation 12.
Q: The next is recommendation 13, which calls for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts. I assume from what you said before you favor that. And then recommendation 14, which calls for an unconditional meeting, like the 1991 Madrid conference.
A: It is a good idea. I would like to see this administration really honestly have interest to accomplish this goal. It has a duty to encourage Israel to walk on this path.
Q: Finally, Lebanon, which is discussed in recommendation 15. It has a series of specific items. First, it says that Syria should pledge full adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006 (which called on Syria to halt deliveries of arms to Hezbollah.)
A: We are adhering to it. We have increased our border patrols on the Lebanese border.
I deny all rumors that Syria is sending arms to Lebanese parties. You have satellite and air surveillance over these borders. Nobody has presented us a document telling us that there is this transfer of arms. President Assad committed to (UN Secretary General) Annan that Syria will work with the UN to implement 1701.
Q: The Baker-Hamilton Report next calls on Syria to cooperate with the UN investigation of the Hariri assassination and other killings. I know that Brammertz said this week in his latest report that Syria is cooperating, but will you continue to cooperate?
A: We will continue our cooperation with the Brammertz investigation, as long as this investigation is proven it is professional. Because discovering the reality of this crime is serving the Syrian interest.
Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah and use of Syrian territory to transport weapons.
A: There is no such cooperation (with Hezbollah). We have moral support, not operational support, because we want to see Lebanon stable. We want to help UNIFIL (the UN force in southern Lebanon) in achieving its mandate, and we believe the Lebanese are capable of solving issues.
Q: Next, recommendation 15 calls for Syria to use its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of Israeli army prisoners.
A: Who has influence on Israel to release Lebanese, Palestinians and 20 Syrians who are being held prisoner? Why don't we combine the two influences to achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners. We are ready.
Q: Next, the report calls on Syria to stop its efforts to undermine the Lebanese government.
A: We are for the stability, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.
Q: But I believe the report is referring to the current Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora.
A: Fouad Siniora is not Lebanon. Fouad Siniora was invited to visit Syria three times. He was reluctant. We support Lebanese stability. We support what Lebanese agreed upon to achieve their stability, within Taif (the 1990 Taif agreement) and the constitution.
Q: Next, the report calls for Syria to cease arms shipments to Hamas.
A: This is nonsense. We are far from Gaza.
Q: Next, the report calls for a Syrian commitment to help obtain an acknowledgement by Hamas of Israel's right to exist.
A: I will disclose something to you for the first time. We are exerting efforts with the foreign minister of Qatar with Hamas and Fatah together. We kept the same distance between them, to reach agreement to compose a national unity government. We convinced Hamas to agree on a ceasefire in Gaza. We hope this will be applicable to the West Bank. We convinced Hamas to agree on a Palestinian state in the 1967 occupied territories. (An implicit recognition of Israel). What else do you want from us?
Q: Finally, recommendation 15 calls on Syria to make greater efforts to seal its border with Lebanon.
A: Can the US seal its border with Mexico? Unless you want us to build a wall to seal the border with Lebanon. Are the Lebanese seeking this? Will it serve their interests?
Q: Finally, Recommendation 16 says that in return for Syrian help in all these matters, Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria. Is that a precondition, for Syria–that it would get the Golan back in any negotiations?
A: There is no precondition. A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions. Dialogue has a literature (of proper procedure). You don't put demands. You put agreed goals. Under this, you put each side's commitment to achieve the goals in a parallel way. This is how we understand constructive dialogue.
This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon.' Our only goal is to get the return of Syrian occupied territories, to get Syrian regional stability.
Q: A last question. I am assuming that you have discussed these issues with President Assad, and that he agrees with the views that you expressed today in this interview.
A: I am the foreign minister of Syria. The president and the foreign minister can speak. He is the leader. I am expressing his ideas.
By David Ignatius | November 10, 2006; 7:10 PM ET