The Syrian leader left open the possibility to negotiate with the opposition but ruled out stepping down in this rare interview obtained by top Argentine daily Clarin.
DAMASCUS - Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s strongman, carries a calm look that clashes with his place in history. But the expression on his face might actually be the one of a man who feels trapped, not calm. Assad maintained this gaze throughout the extensive interview, one of his only encounters with the foreign press since the conflict began two years ago.
The Syrian leader ruled out any possibility of renouncing power, and brushed off accusations that his army had used chemical weapons, as well as, the figure of 70,000 dead recently cited by the United Nations.
The interview took place in a library in Assad’s palace in Damascus with the distant sound of artillery exchange and mortar firing as the backdrop.
CLARIN: Why has the Syrian crisis spread and deepened to a greater extent than in other Arab countries?
BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Multiple internal and external elements have contributed to the crisis, outside intervention being the most important factor. At the same time, the calculations made by the countries that have wanted to intervene were erroneous. Those states thought that the plan could end in weeks or months, but this did not take place. Instead, the Syrian people have resisted and we continue to do so. For us, it is about defending our homeland.
Do you know that, according to the UN, this war has already caused more than 70,000 deaths?
You would have to ask those who raise these figures about the credibility of their sources. Every death is horrible, but many of the dead they speak of are foreigners who came here to kill the Syrian people. We cannot omit that there are also many Syrians who have gone missing. What is the number of Syrian deaths and what is the number of foreign ones? How many missing persons are there? We cannot give a precise figure. Of course, this constantly changes since the terrorists kill and sometimes bury their victims in mass graves.
Do you dismiss the possibility that your troops may have used excessive, disproportionate force in the repression?
How could one determine whether or not there has been excessive force? What is the formula? It is not very objective to speak of that. One reacts according to the type of terrorism one faces. At the beginning, the terrorism was local and then it came from the outside, which led to the sophistication of the weapons they brought. The debate here is not about the amount of force employed or the type of weaponry. It is about the amount of terrorism that we suffer and the resulting duty to respond.
Was there not a possibility of achieving a dialogue at the start of the crisis to avoid this outcome?
At the start, the demands were reformist, but this approach was apparent. It was a façade, a camouflage to pass it off as a matter of reforms. We have made reforms ... changed the Constitution ... changed the laws ... annulled the state of emergency and announced a dialogue with opposing forces. But with every step we took, the terrorism increased. The logical question here is: what is the relationship between terrorism and reform?
What is your answer?
Terrorism cannot be the means towards the reforms. What is the relation of a Chechen terrorist with the reforms in Syria? What connection does a terrorist from Iraq, Lebanon, or Afghanistan have with reforms in Syria? Lately, there have been 29 registered nationalities combating in Syria... what is the relation between all of them and internal reform? Nobody wants to dialogue with a terrorist. Terrorism hit the United States and Europe, and not a single country negotiated with the terrorists. One opens a dialogue with political forces, not with a terrorist who cuts throats, kills, and uses chemical gases.
You denounce the presence of foreign militias in Syria, but it is assured that there are also fighters from Hezbollah and Iran.
Syria, with its 23 million people, does not need manpower from any other country. We have an army and security forces. We do not need Iran or Hezbollah for that. We do not have combatants from outside of Syria. There are people from Hezbollah and Iran, but they came to Syria before the crisis.
How do you evaluate the conference planned by Russia and the United States on Syria for the end of this month?
We have taken their rapprochement well and we hope that it sets up an international meeting to help Syrians. However, we do not believe that many Western countries truly want a solution in Syria. We do not think that the many forces supporting the terrorists will want a solution. We endorse this endeavour and applaud it, but we must be realistic. There cannot be a unilateral solution in Syria since at least two sides are necessary.
Are the combatting forces the ones that do not want a solution or is it the great powers?
In practice, those opposing forces are connected to foreign countries. As a result, they do not make their own decisions. They live off what comes from the outside, receive funds, and carry out those countries’ decisions. They are both the same thing. They are the ones who announced last week that they did not want to dialogue with the Syrian government.
When you speak of dialogue, who from the opposing forces are you referring to?
We will always have discussions with whoever wants to. This does not, however, include terrorists: there has been no State dialogue with terrorists. When they put down their arms, we won’t have problems going to negotiations. (But) believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unrealistic.
What is the possibility that discussions could include external forces, like the U.S.?
We have said from the start that we will have discussions with any force from Syria, or abroad, on the condition that no arms are taken up. This is the only condition. We have not put conditions on talks. The Syrian people will decide who is patriotic and who is not.
With relation to the international conference...
For us, the basic objective of an international conference would be to stop money and arms coming into Syria and detain terrorists who come from Turkey with financing from Qatar or other Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia.
Where does Israel come into this crisis?
Israel directly supports the terrorist groups in two ways: it gives them logistical backing, as well as instructing them how to attack and which sites to target. For example, they attacked a defense radar site which would have detected any airplane that could have come from outside, especially Israel.
If talks advanced, could a shipment of arms by the opposition be predicted?
The opposition is not just one entity, they’re groups and gangs -- not tens, but hundreds. They’re a mix, and each group has its own local leader. There are thousands of them, who could unite thousands of people? This is the question. We can’t talk about a prediction when we don’t know who they are.
Would you be willing to step aside for a definitive solution?
My permanence depends on the Syrian people. It’s not my personal decision whether I stay or go. It’s the people’s. If they want you to stay, you stay, and if not, you leave. Stepping aside depends on the Constitution, on the ballots. In the 2014 elections, Syria will decide. It’s unacceptable that anyone can say that the Syrian president has to step aside because the U.S. wants him to, or because the terrorists have asked him to.
Barack Obama has given signs that he’s not thinking of intervening in your country, but his Secretary of State, John Kerry, has said that talks should include the possibility of you leaving office.
I don’t know if Kerry or any others like him have received a mandate that says he can speak on behalf of the Syrian people to say who stays and who leaves. We said that any decision taken in relation to the reforms in Syria or any political actions are Syrian decisions alone. One goes into elections, they present themselves as a candidate and then there is the possibility of winning or not. You can’t go to that conference and decide on something that the people have not chosen. Another aspect is that the country is in crisis. When a ship is in the middle of a storm, standing down is the same as fleeing -- and a captain doesn’t flee. The first thing is to face the storm, return the country back to the right position and then things can be decided. I’m not a person who shirks responsibility.
France, the UK, and John Kerry have claimed that your army has used chemical weapons, sarin gas, against your own population.
We can’t waste time with this empty rhetoric. Chemical arms are weapons of massive destruction. They said that we used them in residential zones. If a nuclear bomb was dropped on a city and only 10 or 20 people were killed, would anyone believe me? The use of chemical weapons in residential zones means the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, in minutes. Who could hide such a thing?
Then what do you attribute these statements to?
When the issue of chemical weapons was raised, the terrorist groups had used them in Aleppo about two months ago. We collected the evidence -- the missile itself and chemicals substances. We analyzed the substances and sent a letter to the Security Council to send a verification task group. The U.S., France and Britain were in an embarrassing situation and said they wanted to send their own groups to investigate chemical weapons in other areas where it was alleged that they were used. They did not investigate where the actual event occurred. A member of the commission, Carla del Ponte, announced that it was the terrorists who had used chemical weapons but not even the UN paid attention to that statement.
Do you believe that these allegations could pave the way for a military intervention in Syria?
It’s likely that the matter will be used as a prelude to a war against Syria. We all remember what happened in Iraq -- where were Saddam Hussein’s WMDs? The West lies and uses the falsifications to unleash wars, it’s their habit. Of course any war against Syria won’t be easy, it won’t be just an “excursion.” But we cannot rule out the possibility that they’ll wage a war.
On what basis?
It’s already happened from Israel (the bombings). It’s a likely probability, especially after we hit armed groups in many Syrian zones. So the other countries are asking Israel to do this to boost the morale of the terrorist groups. We assume that at any moment there will be some kind of intervention, even if it’s limited.
You say that you’re controlling the situation, yet as we speak the noise of artillery at the periphery of the city is resonating.
The term controlling, or not controlling, is used when there is a war with a foreign army. But this situation is totally different. The terrorists penetrate scattered areas and flee from one place to another. There are vast zones where they move and it’s obvious that no army in the world can be on every corner.
Do you really believe that the North Americans are cooperating with Qatar or Saudi Arabia to impose a Wahhabi or extremist government in Syria?
The only thing the West cares about is that they have “loyal” governments at their disposal after they’ve left. But what happened in Afghanistan refutes that. They appointed the Taliban and on September 11, they paid a high price. The danger of this is that the Wahhabi states want to spread their extremist way of thinking to the entire population, but in Syria we have a moderate Islam and we will resist this by all means.
In the 2014 presidential elections, will there be international observers and will you permit free access to the world’s press to cover the event?
To be honest, the issue of observers is a decision for the country. Some people cannot tolerate the idea that monitoring is a matter of national sovereignty. We do not have confidence in the West for this task. If it wants someone to oversee, it will be from friendly countries like Russia or China, for example.
Do you have any self-criticism?
It isn't logical to be self-critical when you’re dealing when events are still happening. If you watch a film, you don’t criticize it before the end. Evaluating the performance and decisions made during this crisis can only be done objectively when we have all the information available and a long term view in mind. Only then can we determine right from wrong.