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.
These videos are part two and three of a BBC documentary. Part one is found in the previous post.
This video of a BBC documentary is also available at Shamel Azmeh’s Blog, where I first found it. It follows the lives of students in a number of classes.
‘A matter of life and death’. Egypt’s largest workers’ action in 20 years began on Sunday. On Sunday, workers at the state run textile and weaving company Ghazl Al-Mahala began one of the largest industrial protests of the past two decades, with 27,000 workers downing tools. The strike, say the workers, is a continuation of the action taken in December, when production at the plant was halted. On Saturday night, police forces had surrounded the factory only to withdraw, fearing direct confrontation with the workers. Meanwhile , Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel-Hady said that action can only be taken once the strike is ended. (Karim El-Khashab, Al-Ahram)
Burma More or Less Needs Help. Burma needs help, desperately, but with a “friend” like Bush trying to capitalize on his “freedom” agenda, they might do well to look elsewhere. ASEAN is a good place to start, Burma is a member country and informal personal, cultural and trade links provide intelligence and potential leverage. Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s new Secretary General is a veteran diplomat who as foreign minister under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, chose not lend support to the dictators of Burma, in sharp contrast to the devil-may-care profiteering in Rangoon and elsewhere on the part of the successor government led by Thaksin Shinawatra. And Japan, the largest aid donor and home to a community of Burmese exiles has a modest role to play. But the real wild card in the Burma conundrum, with immense leverage for better or worse, is China. (Phillip J. Cunningham, re-published in Informed Comment: Global Affairs)
Pakistan’s plan is coming together. With President General Pervez Musharraf naming his successor as head of the army, the United States-backed stage is set for Musharraf to be re-elected as president on Saturday and for Pakistan to move towards a civilian-based consensus government. The army will not be left out, though. A select team of “war on terror” veterans will work closely with the US in its military and trade objectives in the region. (Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times)
Islamabad’s grip on tribal areas is slipping. Taliban forces and their sympathizers are becoming entrenched in the seven tribal agencies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A lethal combination of President General Pervez Musharraf’s declining public support, a significant rise in suicide attacks targeting the army, and the reluctance of soldiers in the area to engage tribal gangs militarily, further exacerbates the problem. (Hassan Abbas, Asia Times)
Gaza’s darkness. Gaza has been reoccupied. The world must know this and Israelis must know it, too. It is in its worst condition, ever. Since the abduction of Gilad Shalit, and more so since the outbreak of the Lebanon war, the Israel Defense Forces has been rampaging through Gaza – there’s no other word to describe it – killing and demolishing, bombing and shelling, indiscriminately. (Gideon Levy, Haaretz)
Playing loose with law. Israel’s declaring Gaza “hostile” is but a way to justify its unwarrantable starvation of Palestinians under occupation. While some Palestinians are able to cope with temporary electricity outages, there is no dispute that Gaza’s residents will not be able to weather other means of collective punishment approved by the Israeli government. Israel provides the Gaza Strip with 150 megawatts of electricity per month, which constitutes 45 per cent of Gaza’s electricity needs. According to the first stage of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan, if locally manufactured missiles continue to be fired at Israeli settlements in the Negev, Israel will significantly cut back electricity supplies. The plan clearly states that supplies will only suffice hospitals and health facilities. (Saleh Al-Naami, Al-Ahram)
Healthcare in Africa: Lesotho’s Youth Struggle to Survive. in the small African nation of Lesotho, there are only six pediatricians to care for the country’s 800,000 children. HIV/AIDS has been declared a national emergency in the country: one in four people have contracted the virus. Why are physicians in such short supply in a nation with such a dire need for healthcare? Lesotho is yet another victim of an expanding skills drain in Sub-Saharan Africa. Promising students often leave the country and once educated, flee to surrounding nations to work in a more stable, higher-paying environment. (Nash Riggins, Toward Freedom)
Lebanon and Syria: The Politics of Assassination. The assassination of Lebanese politician Antoine Ghanem on September 19 is likely to be used, predictably, to further US and Israeli interests in the region. Most Western and some Arab media have industriously argued that Syria is the greatest beneficiary from the death of Ghanem, a member of the Phalange party responsible for much of Lebanon’s bloodshed during the civil war years between 1975 and 1990. The reasoning provided is that Syria needs to maintain a measure of political control over Lebanon after being pressured to withdraw its troops. This political clout could only be maintained through the purging of anti-Syrian critics in Lebanon, and by ensuring a Lebanese parliament friendly to Syria. And indeed, with the elimination of Ghanem, the anti-Syrian coalition at the fractious Lebanese parliament is now left with an even slimmer majority – 68 MPs in a 128-member assembly. Case solved. Or is it? (Ramzy Baroud, ZNet)
Who shot Mohammed al Dura? It was a shooting that became a powerful rallying cry for Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation at the start of the second intifada. On Sept. 30, 2000, almost seven years ago to this day, Mohammed al Dura was shot and killed in Gaza while cowering behind his father during a clash between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. Israel immediately apologized for the shooting and said the bullets had “apparently” come from their soldiers. But, very quickly, Israel and its supporters began challenging the video and the story. The controversy has been resurrected because of a pending court case in France in which the French television journalist who aired the dramatic footage in 2000 sued a media watchdog who accused the reporter of staging the shooting. (Dion Nissenbaum, Checkpoint Jerusalem)