Syrian president Bashar al-Assad interview transcripts and video
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was interviewed by Charlie Rose on May 27, and the video of the full interview is available online. You can also read the full transcipt at Joshua Landis’ excellent website, Syria Comment. Syria comment also has the full transcript of a May 8 La Repubblica interview with Bashar al-Assad. The La Repubblica transcript is cleaner and easier to read.
Here are some highlights from the more recent Charlie Rose interview (video here):
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: 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: 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: 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 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: 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: 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.