Damascus, SANA – President Bashar al-Assad described in an interview with the Swedish Expressen Newspaper the outcomes of Moscow talks as a breakthrough and said that the UN envoy’s Aleppo plan, which is supported by the government, was spoiled by external intervention, renewing his warning that the terrorism imported to Syria will “bite” its backers whenever it has the chance.
He also called on Sweden to influence the EU to lift the economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian people.
The following is full text of the interview:
Question 1: Mr. President, I would like to offer my most sincere thanks on behalf of Expressen for giving us this interview. Thank you so much. While we are sitting here, doing this interview, the terrorist organization ISIS and even al-Nusra is overrunning al-Yarmouk refugee camp. At the same time, al-Nusra is controlling the Syrian-Jordanian border and have taken control over Idleb. How serious would you describe the situation now?
President Assad: Whenever you talk about terrorism, it’s always serious, because it’s always dangerous, anytime, anywhere, no matter how. That’s what you always say about terrorism, and it is not related directly to the example you have mentioned, because this is only a manifestation of terrorism. It’s a long process that started years ago even before the crisis in Syria. Terrorism is serious and dangerous because it doesn’t have borders, it doesn’t have limits. It could hit anywhere, it’s not a domestic issue. It’s not even regional; it’s global, that’s why it’s always dangerous. In our case, it’s more dangerous, let’s say, the situation is worse not only because of the military situation that you have mentioned in your question. Actually because this time it was having a political umbrella by many countries, many leaders, many officials, but mainly in the West. Many of those officials didn’t see the reality at the very beginning. It’s more dangerous this time because we don’t have international law, and you don’t have the effective international organization that would protect a country from another country that uses the terrorists as a proxy to destroy another country. That’s what’s happening in Syria. So, I’ll say yes, it is dangerous, but at the same time, it’s reversible. As long as it’s reversible, it’s not too late to deal with it. It’s going to be more serious with the time when the terrorists indoctrinate the hearts and minds of people.
Question 2: But they are overrunning more areas in Syria. Are the Syrian forces and army weakened?
President Assad: That’s the natural, normal repercussion of any war. Any war weakens any army, no matter how strong, no matter how modern. It undermines and weakens every society, in every aspect of the word; the economy, the society, let’s say, the morals, and of course the army as part of this society. That’s normal.
Question 3: But is the army weaker than before? Because last year, we could see win-win effect from your side, from the army’s side, you overrunning more areas, more control over al-Qalamoun and other areas, but now, they have control over Idleb, as an example.
President Assad: It’s not related to that issue, whether it’s stronger or weaker. As I said, any war undermines any army, that’s the natural course of events. But in your case, when you look at the context of the war for the last four years, you have ups and downs. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and that depends on many criteria, some of them related to domestic, internal and military criteria, or factors, let’s say, which is more precise. Some of them are related to how much support the terrorists have. For example, the recent example that you mentioned about Idleb, the main factor was the huge support that came through Turkey; logistic support, and military support, and of course financial support that came through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Question 4: Is it information, or is it an opinion?
President Assad: Information, everything, they were like one army; the terrorists, al-Nusra Front which is part of al-Qaeda, and the Turkish government or institutions or intelligence, were like one army in that battle, so it doesn’t depend on the weakening of our army. It depended more on how much support the terrorists have from Turkey.
Question 5: Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they had an agenda four years ago. Did it change? Did they change that agenda?
President Assad: First of all, they’re not independent countries, so they won’t have their own agenda. Sometimes they have their own narrow-minded behavior or vengeful behavior or hateful behavior that’s been used by others’ agenda, let’s be frank here, sometimes the United States. So, we cannot say that they have their own agenda, but they haven’t changed. They still support the same terrorists, because this behavior is not related to the crisis in Syria. They supported the terrorists in Afghanistan, they supported the Wahhabi ideology, the extremism that led to terrorism recently in Europe, for decades, and now they are supporting the same ideology and the same factions under different labels and names in Syria. So, there’s nothing to change because this is their natural behavior.
Question 6: Which ideology you mean?
President Assad: The Wahhabi ideology, which forms the foundation for every terrorism in the world. No terrorist acts for the last decades in the Middle East and in the world happened without this ideology. Every terrorist bases his doctrine on the Wahhabi ideology.
Question 7: Wahhabi ideology, it’s linked to 9-11 and all the terrorist groups. Doesn’t the United States know about that link between Wahhabi ideology and terrorists? But they continue to support Saudi Arabia.
President Assad: This is a very important question, because the United States in the 1980s called the same groups of al-Qaeda and Taliban, in Afghanistan, they called them holy fighters, and that’s what president Bush described them as, holy fighters. And then, after the 11th of September 2001, they called them terrorists. The problem with the United States and of course some Western officials is that they think you can use terrorism as a card in your pocket, as a political card. Actually, terrorism is like a scorpion; whenever it has the chance, it will bite. So, they know, but they didn’t estimate how dangerous terrorism is to be used as a political card.
Question 8: Mr. President, the official Syrian delegation and part of the opposition have recently met in Moscow. Are there any effective results of that meeting?
President Assad: Actually, yes. We can say yes, because this meeting was the first time to reach – because you know we had many dialogues before – this is the first time to reach an agreement upon some of the principles that could make the foundation for the next dialogue between the Syrians. We haven’t finalized it yet, because the schedule of that meeting was very comprehensive, so four days wasn’t enough. Actually, two days, it was four days, but two days between the government and the other opposition representatives. It wasn’t enough to finalize the schedule, but because when you have a breakthrough, even if it’s a partial breakthrough, it means that the next meeting will be promising in reaching a full agreement about what are the principles of Syrian dialogue that will bring a Syrian, let’s say, solution to the conflict.
Question 9: It’s very important, what you say, Mr. President, because the United Nations’ Syria Envoy, Mr. Staffan de Mistura, he’s planning a series of consultations to begin in May or June to assess the chance of finding a common ground between the main states with an interest in the conflict. What do you think about it?
President Assad: Actually, I agree with de Mistura about this point, because if we want to look at the conflict in Syria as only an internal conflict between Syrian factions, that’s not realistic and that’s not objective. Actually, the problem is not very complicated, but it became complicated because of external intervention, and any plan you want to execute in Syria today in order to solve the problem – and that’s what he faced in his plan towards Aleppo – it will be spoiled by external intervention. That’s what happened in Aleppo, when the Turks told the factions, the terrorists they support and supervise, to refuse to cooperate with de Mistura, so I think he’s aware that if he couldn’t convince these countries to stop supporting the terrorists and let the Syrians solve their problem, he will not succeed.
Question 10: What is your opinion about de Mistura’s efforts?
President Assad: We discussed with him the plan for Aleppo, and it comes in line with our efforts in making reconciliations in different areas in Syria. This is where we succeeded, and this is where you could make things better, when you have people going back to their normality, when the government gives them amnesty and they turn in their armaments, and so on. So, his plan for Aleppo comes in line with the same principle of reconciliation, so we supported it from the very beginning, and we still support his efforts in that regard.
Question 11: Mr. President, Sweden is the only country in Europe that grants permanent rights of stay for people that flee the war in Syria. What has that meant, and how do you view Sweden’s policy?
President Assad: In that regard or in general?
Question 12: In that regard, that’s right.
President Assad: I think that’s something that’s appreciated around the world, not only in our country, and this humanitarian stand of Sweden is appreciated regarding different conflicts, including the Syrian one. So, this is a good thing to do, to give people refuge, but if you ask the Syrian people who fled from Syria “what do you want?” They don’t want to flee Syria because of the war; they want to end that war. That’s their aim, that’s our aim. So, I think if you give people refuge, it is good, but the best is to help them in going back to their country. How? I think Sweden is an important country in the EU. It can play a major role in lifting the sanctions, because many of the Syrians who went to Sweden or any other country, didn’t only leave because of the terrorist acts; they left because of the embargo, because they have no way for living, they want the basics for their daily livelihood. Because of the embargo, they had to leave Syria, so lifting the embargo that has affected every single Syrian person and at the same time banning any European country from giving an umbrella to terrorists under different names, whether they call it peaceful opposition, whether they call it moderate opposition. It’s been very clear today, it’s been proved, that this opposition that they used to support is the same al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood. Third one is to make pressure over countries that support terrorists and prevent any plan of peace in Syria, like the one that you mentioned, of Mr. de Mistura, to be implemented in Syria, mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. So I think this is the best help and humanitarian help on the political title that Sweden could offer to the Syrian people.
Question 13: Embargo and war, and millions of refugees or people who fled from the country. This has been described as the worst refugee crisis since World War II. How big of a responsibility, Mr. President, do you have for this situation?
President Assad: I think to compare between what’s happening in Syria, even from a humanitarian point of view, and what happened in World War II, I think it’s kind of a huge exaggeration. We cannot compare, for political reasons. But regardless of this exaggeration, we have millions of people who are displaced from their areas to other areas because of the terrorist acts, and that’s a huge burden. Actually, so far, we bear the major brunt of the crisis. You hear a lot of fuss about what the international organizations and what they call themselves “friends of Syria” spend money and give support and donations to the Syrians. Actually, if you want to have just a glimpse of what we are doing, for example in 2014, last year, all those countries and organizations offered in the food sector 22% of what we offer as a country during the war. That’s a huge difference, which is 1 to 5.
Question 14: Inside the country?
President Assad: Inside Syria, yes. Regarding the healthcare sector, it was 1 to 18 in our favor. So actually, we are bearing the brunt. Besides that, we’re still paying salaries, sending vaccines to the children, offering and providing the basic requirements for the hospitals in the areas that are under the control of the terrorists. So, we are still running the country and bearing the brunt.
Question 15: According to SAPO, the Swedish intelligence agency, returning jihadists – there are many here in Syria now – returning jihadists are the biggest domestic threat in Sweden today. Do you agree?
President Assad: I wouldn’t look at terrorism as domestic or as regional. As I said, it’s global. So, if you want to look at Sweden as part of Europe or part of the Scandinavian group of European countries, you have to take into consideration that the most dangerous leaders of ISIS in our region are Scandinavian.
Question 16: This is information?
President Assad: Yes, it’s information. That’s what we have as information. So, you cannot separate this group of countries or Sweden from Europe. As long as you have terrorism growing in different European countries, Sweden cannot be safe. As long as the backyard of Europe, especially the Mediterranean and Northern Africa is in chaos and full of terrorists, Europe cannot be safe. So, yes I agree that it is a primary or prime threat, but you cannot call it domestic, but it’s a threat.
Question 17: Has Sweden asked you to share information about these ISIS fighters or other jihadists?
President Assad: No, there’s no contact between our intelligence agencies.
Question 18: Mr. President, in December 2010, Taimour Abdulwahab, a Swedish terrorist who was trained in Iraq and Syria, carried out a suicide attack in Stockholm. Recently, the same scenario in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and even Copenhagen. Do you think Western countries will face the same scenario in the future?
President Assad: Actually, everything that happened in Europe, and I mean terrorist attacks, we warned from at the very beginning of the crisis, and I said Syria is a fault line, when you mess with this fault line you will have the echoes and repercussions in different areas, not only in our area, even in Europe. At that time, they said the Syrian president is threatening. Actually, I wasn’t threatening; I was describing what’s going to happen. It doesn’t take a genius because that’s the context of events that happened many times in our region, and we have experience with those kinds of terrorists for more than 50 years now. They didn’t listen, so what happened was warned of before, and what we saw in France, in Charlie Hebdo, the suicide attempts in Copenhagen, in London, in Spain, ten years ago, this is only the tip of the iceberg; terrorism is a huge mountain. It’s not isolated events. When you have those isolated events, you have to know that you have a big mountain under the sea that you don’t see. So, yes, I expect, as long as you have this mountain, and as long as many European officials are still adulating countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar just for their money and selling their values and allowing the Wahhabi dark ideology to infiltrate and be instilled in some communities in Europe, we have to expect more attacks in that regard.
Question 19: What is the most effective way to deal with terrorism?
President Assad: First of all, terrorism is not a war. First of all, it’s a state of mind, it’s a culture, so you have to deal with this culture. You have to deal with it in an ideological way, and that implicates the education and the culture. Second, those terrorists exploit the poor people. You have to deal with poverty, so economic growth is very important, development. Third, you have to deal with the political issue that’s being used by these terrorists in order to indoctrinate those youths or children in solving the political problems in our region, for example the peace issue was one of the primary reasons for those terrorists to recruit terrorists.
Question 20: Which peace? You mean the peace process?
President Assad: I mean between the Arabs and the Israelis. Solving this problem, because this is one of the reasons to having desperation, you have to deal with the desperation of those youths who wanted to go and die to go to heaven to have a better life. That’s how they think. So, you have to deal with these desperations. The last measure is exchanging information between the intelligence. War is only to defend yourself against terrorism. You cannot go and attack terrorism by war, you can only defend yourself if they use military means, so that’s how we can defend against terrorism.
Question 21: Mr. President, ISIS has asked its supporters from around the world to come to Syria and Iraq to populate their so-called caliphate. How do you see the future for ISIS?
President Assad: I don’t think that ISIS so far has any real incubator in our society. Let me talk about Syria first. I cannot talk on behalf of other societies in our region, because when you talk about ISIS it’s not a Syrian issue now; Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Libyan, in Egypt, in many areas they have it. But regarding Syria, they don’t have the incubator, so if you want to talk about the short term, ISIS doesn’t have a future, but in the midterm, in the long term, when they indoctrinate the hearts and minds of the people, especially the youths and children. This area will have only one future; al-Qaeda future, which is ISIS, al-Nusra, and Muslim Brotherhood, and this is going to be your backyard, I mean the European backyard.
Question 22: In the middle and long term, it’s very dangerous.
President Assad: Of course it is, because you can take procedures against many things, but ideology you cannot control. When it is instilled, it’s very difficult to get rid of. So, when it’s instilled, this is the only future of the region.
Question 23: ISIS and al-Nusra, they get help, they receive support from outside, you said Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and like that, but so does your side too. You have Hezbollah fighting for you. Do you need Hezbollah here in Syria?
President Assad: As a Swedish citizen, you don’t accept anyone to tell you or to draw comparison between Taimour Abdulwahab, for example, as a terrorist, and your government, no matter whether you agree with your government or oppose your government. The same for Charlie Hebdo, terrorists and the French government, you cannot make comparison. So, we don’t accept as Syrians to have comparison between the state and the terrorist organizations. Our mission is to help the country, to defend the citizens, while I don’t think this is the role of ISIS or al-Nusra or the Muslim Brotherhood. Their role, actually, is only to kill people and terrorize them. So, you cannot make a comparison. Second, as a government, we have the right to ask for support from any state or organization or any entity that will help us in our war against terrorism. Third, because when I said terrorism cannot be a domestic issue, and this is wrong to look at it as a domestic issue, the good thing is to have cooperation with different powers in the region. For example, we had cooperation between the Syrians and the Iraqis even before the rise of ISIS recently during the summer of last year in Mosul. Before that we had good cooperation, intelligence and even military, for one reason; because the Iraqis were aware that the terrorism in Syria could spill over to Iraq, and that’s what happened in Mosul. The same is with the Lebanese. So, Hezbollah is aware that terrorism in Syria means terrorism in Lebanon. Chaos here means chaos there, so this kind of regional cooperation is very important for all of us.
Question 24: Mr. President, once again you are accused for having used chemical weapons in Syria. Two sets of tests carried out for The Times and medical charities reveal that your forces chlorine and cyanide, according to The Times and even Amnesty International, I think. What do you have to say about it?
President Assad: We always said this is propaganda against Syria from the very first day, to demonize the president to demonize the state, in order to bring the hearts and minds of the Syrian people toward their agenda. That didn’t work, and if you want to compare this propaganda to what is happening now in the West regarding Ukraine, it’s nearly the same; demonizing Putin and telling and forging, a lot of videos and things that only tell the public opinion in the West lies. This is reality. Western people should be aware about this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have mistakes, we don’t have something wrong or something bad going on, but at the end, this media propaganda doesn’t reflect the reality in our region. So, talking about the chemical weapons, they didn’t have a single evidence regarding this, and even the numbers that are being published by many European organizations as part of that propaganda were varied from 200 victims to 1,400 victims. It means it’s not objective, it’s not precise, and so far there’s no evidence that those people were killed because of this attack. The only evidence that we have when the committee came from the United Nations, it proved that the sarin gas was used in that area, but they couldn’t tell how and by whom, so they just keep accusing Syria of that. That’s not realistic, because if you want to use WMDs, you don’t kill a few hundreds; you kill tens of thousands of people, and that’s beside the capital, it will affect everyone. So, many stories regarding this issue are not correct. Second, we are the party who asked the United Nations to send a delegation to verify this allegation.
Question 25: You still do that?
President Assad: We did, Syria did. Syria asked the United Nations, not any other country. When there was proof that terrorists used it in the north of Syria, they didn’t try to verify it. They didn’t mention it. So it’s part of the political agenda against Syria.
Question 26: As you know there are many serious allegations against your government, about human rights abuses committed by your side. How much do you know about torture in your prisons here?
President Assad: When you talk about torture we have to differentiate between policy of torture and individual incidents that happen by any individual. When you talk about a policy of torture, the closest example is what happened in Guantanamo. In Guantanamo, there was a policy of torture by the American administration that was endorsed by president Bush and by his minister of defense and the rest of the administration. With Syria we never had under any circumstances such a policy. If you have any breach of law, torture, revenge, whatever, it could be an individual incident that the one who committed should be held accountable for. So, that’s what could happen anywhere in the world, like any other crime.
Question 27: Can Amnesty International or Red Cross visit your prisons here?
President Assad: We had many reporters and many organizations that came to Syria, but if you want to mention a certain name to come and visit, that depends on the kind of cooperation a certain organization and our government and that depends on the credibility of the organization. But in principle, many organizations and entities can visit our prisons.
Question 28: Mr. President, I have covered the war in Syria for the last four years. I met different groups and activists who were involved in the conflict. I even met soldiers from your army here. Some of those activists are actually not Islamists. I have been told that they fight for freedom. What would you like to say to them?
President Assad: We never said every fighter is an Islamist. We know that. But they are prevailing now, the terrorists, ISIS and al-Nusra, but if you want to talk about freedom, freedom is a natural instinct in every human since our ancestor Adam, and this is a divine thing for anyone to ask for, so it’s going to be illogical and unrealistic and against the nature of the Earth and the people to be against freedom. But we have to ask a few simple questions. Is killing people part of that freedom? Is destroying schools and banning children from going to schools part of that freedom? Destroying the infrastructure, electricity, communications, sanitation system, beheading, dismemberment of victims. Is that freedom? I think the answer to that question is very clear to everyone regardless of their culture. So, we support anyone who works to get more freedom, but in an institutional way, under the constitution of that country, not by violence and terrorism and destroying the country. There’s no relation between that and freedom.
Question 29: They blame even the Syrian army for the same things, as in killing and like that.
President Assad: They have to prove. I mean, the army has been fighting for four years. How can you withstand a war against so many countries, great countries and rich countries, while you kill your people? How could you have the support of your people? That’s impossible. That’s against reality, I mean, that’s unpalatable.
Question 30: If you could turn back the time to 2011 and the start of the crisis, what would you, with the benefit of hindsight, have done differently?
President Assad: We have to go to the basics first. I mean, the two things that we adopted in the very beginning: fight the terrorists, and at the same make dialogue, and we started dialogue during the first year, a few months after the beginning of the conflicts in Syria. We invited everyone to the table to make dialogue, and we cooperated with every initiative that came from the United Nations, from the Arab League, and from any other country, regardless of the credibility of that initiative, just in order not to leave any stone unturned and not to give anyone the excuse that they didn’t do this or didn’t do that. So, we tried everything. So, I don’t think anyone could say that we should have gone in a different way, whether regarding the dialogue or fighting terrorism. These are the main pillars of our policy since the beginning of the problem. Now, any policy needs execution and implementation. In implementation, you always have mistakes and that’s natural. So, to talk about doing things differently, it could be about the details sometimes, but I don’t think now the Syrians would say we don’t want to make dialogue or we don’t want to fight terrorism.
Question 31: Mr. President, Sweden has just had a diplomatic quarrel with Saudi Arabia. What is you analysis of the crisis between Sweden and Saudi Arabia?
President Assad: Whenever you want to discuss any relation between any two countries, the first question is what are the commonalities. What are the shared values between the two countries? In that case, between Sweden and Saudi Arabia, I would ask very simply: the shared values, is it about the political system, or the democracy, or the elections, or the human rights, or women rights, where they don’t have the right even to drive a car, or is it the beheading in public squares, or flogging the people because they write their opinion on Twitter or any social networking site publically? Is that the shared values? As long as you don’t have those shared values, we expect this kind of quarrel. There’s only one way to not have it: either to adulate to the Saudis for their money, or to sell your values that you are proud of to them for their petrodollars. As long as you stick to your values, you have to expect this kind of quarrel.
Question 32: You’re not surprised?
President Assad: No, not all. Actually, many were surprised maybe by the positive Swedish position, because what we got used to in Europe is to have officials in Europe only adulate the Saudis, talking about democracy in Syria for example, while their best friends are the Saudis, a medieval state, so this is a double standard. So, we were surprised by the one standard in Sweden, to be frank, but we are surprised positively.
Question 33: You mean that Syria and Sweden, for example, have more common values than Saudi Arabia and Sweden?
President Assad: I don’t want to exaggerate and say we have the same level of system, because we have our own society, our own circumstances, but Syria was at least on the way to democracy, at least we had a parliament for more than eight decades now. Women are in the parliament since that time, they have the right of election, again, since the beginning of the last century. You cannot compare Syria with Saudi Arabia. But we are on the way toward more democracy, and that’s a natural process. Democracy is not a prescription, it’s not only laws and decrees. Actually, it’s a long process. It’s a social and legislative process at the same time. So, we are moving in that way, while Saudi Arabia never knew anything about this word. They never moved, they never tried to understand it, they don’t accept it as a principle. So, that’s the comparison I would like to talk about if you want to talk about Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Syria.
Question 34: Very important thing you said now, Syria is or was on the way to more democracy. Didn’t the West understand that before the war?
President Assad: Many in the West understood this, but actually at the beginning of the crisis they were led by the Qatari propaganda, the Saudi propaganda and intelligence, so some of them knew, and some didn’t, they were deceived by what they heard from those countries, but they knew that before the crisis we were moving in that regard. But the problem with the West is that they look at democracy as a goal. It’s not the goal; it’s the process. The goal is prosperity. Democracy is a tool to reach that prosperity, and we are using that tool and moving in that regard. So, it takes time, and that’s natural.
Question 35: Still?
President Assad: Now, in the crisis, the priority to the Syrian people is survival now, because it’s an existential threat to the Syrian people. When you talk about terrorism, it’s an existential threat. So, people first think about their safety and the safety of the country. How can you have democracy while you don’t have life first? You need life first, you need safety, you need security, then you can talk about democracy. You cannot reverse things.
Question 36: What’s your advice to Sweden, regarding the Saudi Arabia and Sweden quarrel?
President Assad: We would like to see in every country in the world, but mainly in the West – we got used to it using double standards – we would like to see everyone stick to their values like Sweden, and we would like to see Sweden stick to its values, because in those values you have your interests as a Swedish citizen, and in your values we have interests, as a developing country. We have the same interests in those values, while when you have double standards, you don’t get your interests as you want and you’re going to pay the price, so that’s the only advice. We want them to stick to their values.
Question 37: Back to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia tried recently to apply its censorship policy on the local media and even state television in Lebanon, and even TV stations here in Syria. Is Saudi Arabia a key power in the world today? In Sweden, Lebanon, Syria, everywhere?
President Assad: When you want to talk about a country that’s a key power you have to look at the geopolitical position of that country. Second, the history of that country. Third, it needs to be independent. If it’s not independent, it cannot be a key power. Fourth, you have to look at the heritage. When you look at the history, you look at the heritage. What is the heritage of this country? Let’s go back only a few decades: supporting terrorists in Afghanistan, and creating a problem whose price we still pay till today in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now the rest of the world, Algeria in the 1990s, now Syria, Libya, the same ideology. This is their heritage; beheading, dark ideology, and so on. This is the only heritage that they offered, and recently the aggression against Yemen, killing the poor people, destroying their infrastructure, food factories, airports, Yemen is a very poor country. What do you get when you attack the public property? It’s not Huthi or any other one, it’s the public, the general public. So, this is the heritage of Saudi Arabia. What would we expect from such a country? I wouldn’t call a country that destabilizes its region as a key power. It can be a key power when you play a role in stabilizing your region. When you want to destabilize, any terrorist can destabilize anywhere. We cannot call terrorists, as individuals or organizations or states, as key powers. I wouldn’t call them key powers.
Question 38: Before the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, according to you, your government, was supporting still supporting terrorists organizations here in Syria. Now Saudi Arabia is officially involved in the war in Yemen. How do you read this scene?
President Assad: I just talked about it. When you attack a country illegally, you don’t have any mandate from the Security Council because there’s no threat to the security in the world or in the region. So, to launch such a war is just an aggression. That’s how we look at it. It’s an aggression, it’s going to create more animosity between the Yemeni people and the Saudi people for no reason. They live beside each other. When you create this animosity, you’re talking about generations of animosity. It’s not one year or two years and so on. So, it’s going to create more instability in our region and all our countries are going to pay the price of that conflict, especially as Saudi Arabia always uses the divisive discourse in any political plan, and since the 1980s they only used the sectarian context, which is very dangerous in our region, to talk about sectarian conflict or to promote or to incite or to stoke the fire of any sectarian conflict.
Question 39: What do you think about the future of Saudi Arabia, now when they are officially involved in a war in Yemen?
President Assad: In brief, and it’s not only regarding the war in Yemen, it’s related to the whole behavior of Saudi Arabia for decades now. Whenever you adopt hateful, vengeful behavior, when you harbor extremism and terrorism, all these things can hurt others anywhere in the world, but in the end it will destroy its carrier. It will destroy it.
Question 40: It will destroy Saudi Arabia?
President Assad: Terrorism, extremism, vengeful and hateful behavior will destroy it, so yes.
Question 41: Will it be a divided country?
President Assad: Nobody knows how, but it will destroy it. How? Nobody knows. You have many scenarios. So, I wouldn’t foretell how, but the end result is destruction.
Question 42: Mr. President, the war in Syria has entered its fifth year. We talked about Idleb now and about the border between Jordan and Syria and other areas. How much of the territory of Syria do you actually control? We heard a number, 10% of the country.
President Assad: This is not realistic, I mean the number, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in Damascus city with me, and you would be doing the interview with the opposition leader who would be in charge of the country, so that’s not realistic. But again, I mean, we cannot look at it regarding those numbers, whether it’s fifty or sixty or seventy. First of all this is not a traditional war, not a war between two regular armies and the first one makes an incursion in the land of the second army. Actually, it’s untraditional war where terrorists can fill the vacuum wherever there is no army or security in Syria, and you know you cannot be, I mean as an army, you cannot be everywhere in every part of Syria. So, wherever there is no army, they can exist. But at the same time, every war, nearly every war the army has launched, or nearly every battle in this world, it gained the territory, but again, the terrorists would go to another place. So, in this kind of war, the question since the beginning of the crisis, what was it about? When it started as a propaganda outside Syria and later as terrorist attacks. The main goal was to gain the hearts and minds of the Syrian people, because this is the only way to get rid of this government or this state or this president. This is where they failed. So far, I think they failed because the Syrian people were aware about what is going on. Many of them now support the government against the terrorists and against the external intervention. So, so far I would say that the majority of the Syrian people support their government, and that is the kind of control that you could talk about.
Question 43: The Iraqi army collapsed when ISIS attacked last summer in Mosul. You know that, Mr. President, and the Syrian army is of much higher quality. Why have you not recaptured Raqqa for example from ISIS? Why just air attacks?
President Assad: Because when you have such a war, such a vicious war, terrorists supported by tens of countries around the world, and terrorists coming as recruits from over 100 countries to Syria, and you have anyway a small country, limited resources, you have to put a list of priorities based on military criteria. Otherwise, you will be distracted in your war in every place in Syria, and actually you won’t win any battles. So, you put the priorities, and the final of this list of priorities is to recapture every part of Syria, whether a big city or small village, whether an empty place or an inhabited place, and Raqqa will be one of the main cities that we’re going to capture, but it’s just a matter of time regarding this list I’m talking about.
Question 44: Let me ask another question first. How do you describe the relation between Syria and Iran today?
President Assad: The same relation that we could have described 35 years ago since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, when Syria stood by that revolution, supported it while many countries, but mainly the West and the Gulf states, stood against it, then later Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and we supported Iran. Now, Iran supports Syria. So, it’s a mutual support which is actually an alliance. So, it’s an alliance. That’s how I can describe it.
Question 45: Some critics say that you have sold your country to Iran, and that you would not survive without the help of Iran and Hezbollah. Is it true?
President Assad: If I wanted to adopt this principle, to be ready to sell my country, I would have sold it to the United States, maybe to Israel, maybe to Saudi Arabia, because many countries since the independence of Syria wanted to control Syria for geopolitical reasons. So, if I wanted to sell, I would sell it to the United States first. So, as long as I don’t sell it to anyone, I wouldn’t sell it to Iran. This is first. Second, Iran never tried to control my country. Never. And the Syrian people, by nature, they won’t accept anyone to control their country. So, when Iran supports Syria, that doesn’t mean it controls, doesn’t mean it tries to impose what it wants on the Syrian government. What you say, we couldn’t survive without Iran and Hezbollah, this is a hypothetical question for one reason: sometimes small support in a big war will lead you to bigger results, in any war or any conflict, will give big results. So, whether this support is small or big, it has given a result, we cannot deny this, and their position, supporting Syria, was vital for us. But how was it without their support is difficult to tell. It must have been more difficult, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t survive.
Question 46: How much influence does Iran have in Syria?
President Assad: It’s about how we look at the word “influence,” because influence could be positive and it could be negative. If you want to talk about the influence of France and Germany in Europe, it’s very clear, because one of them is a political power and the other one is an economic power. Iran is an important country to our region. It’s a big country, it’s a developed country, proportionally, at least. But that influence, I would look at it in a positive way, because Iran is a country that seeks to have more stability, for its interests. Any country has interests. So, it is influential, but in a positive way.
Question 47: I understand that Iran is an important country to Syria, but do you need help from Hezbollah?
President Assad: Again, for the same reason that I just mentioned, even small help could have a big impact. This is one reason. But regarding Hezbollah in particular, Hezbollah has good experience in untraditional war. So, in this kind of untraditional war, this kind of help is not quantitative help; it’s qualitative help, and sometimes you need that kind of quality that will have good impact and strong impact in our war. So, it’s not about the size of Hezbollah, if you want to compare it to the size of the Syrian army, it’s small, but the kind of war and the kind of experience that they have, they could have a strong impact.
Question 48: It’s well-known now that Hezbollah is in Syria. How much control do you have over them?
President Assad: Every party that fights besides the Syrian army – because you know we have Syrian fighters who are not in the army but who support the army – every faction who fights with the army is working under the leadership of our army, so they don’t work, they don’t have their own battle, or their front, or their own decision. All the battles are under the Syrian army, so we don’t have any problems.
Question 49: You had Khaled Meshaal, he was in Syria for 11-12 years, I think, he stayed in Syria. Now he left Syria to Qatar. The relation between Hamas and Syria wasn’t so well during the war. How is the relation today?
President Assad: There is no relation at all on the formal level or on the popular level. I think now, recently the events in Yarmouk Camp have proved that part of Hamas, which is basically a Muslim Brotherhood organization, supports al-Nusra Front within Yarmouk.
Question 50: They’re supporting a terrorist group?
President Assad: Yes, they work together. Part of them, they work with al-Nusra. That’s why the leadership of Hamas is in Qatar now, calling to help their faction after ISIS attacked al-Nusra and Hamas faction, to ask the other secular Palestinian organizations to help their members.
Question 51: So Hamas in Syria, they’re history today, the relation.
President Assad: I think so, I don’t think the Syrian people will trust them anymore.
Question 52: Mr. President, let us talk about the United States and Ayn al-Arab. The United States is now attacking ISIS from the air. Actually, they are supporting you. How do you describe the military cooperation between you and the United States who is supposed to be your enemy?
President Assad: My enemy, first of all, is the terrorists. Second, there’s no cooperation between Syria and the American army.
Question 53: Indirectly?
President Assad: Definitely no cooperation, although we are making air raids in the same area, sometimes in the same places exactly.
Question 54: Not even coordination?
President Assad: No, no coordination. But I will tell you maybe part of this, let’s say, coincidence, this attack anyway, because the first part of the question that they support us, let’s say nominally, on paper, yes. In reality, no, because if you want a kind of comparison, the average of air raids of the alliance that’s been made by 60 countries, some of them great countries, is much less than the air raids of a small country like Syria. So, for example, sometimes they make less than ten or more than ten air raids a day, while sometimes we make more than 100 a day, sometimes. So, sometimes it’s more than tenfold.
Question 55: Attacking the same place, the same area?
President Assad: The same area, let’s say, in general. So, this is not realistic, I mean, if you want to say are they serious? That’s the question that we raise here: are they serious in fighting terrorists?
Question 56: Are they serious?
President Assad: Because they’re not serious, they cannot help us. That’s the simple conclusion. If they are serious, maybe we could have discussed that question more seriously, that yes, there is some help, there is some influence. It took them four months to liberate a small city, like what you call Kobani in your media. A similar city would take two to three weeks by our army. So, there’s something wrong about their plan. So, actually no, they didn’t help, and in reality ISIS and al-Nusra are expanding nonstop in different countries now. So, if you want to talk about success or help, where is it? We don’t find it so far.
Question 57: But they don’t have permission to fly over Syria.
President Assad: No, it’s illegal. We said publically that this illegal and they don’t have permission.
Question 58: Mr. President, how do you view the future of Syria?
President Assad: Despite all the pain and destruction and bloodshed, every cloud has a silver lining, so we have to look at the white spot in the dark image. This crisis will make every Syrian rethink the weak points that we used to have in our society. For example, many fanatics didn’t see the thin line between being fanatic and being extremist. Many people didn’t see the thin line between extremist and terrorist. So that will push the whole society to shift more toward moderation, although I’m talking about a moderate society, but in every moderate society you have extreme and fanatic corners and spots. So, I think that will push our society to cherish what we had during our history as moderation and as integration, as different colors of the Syrian spectrum. So, from that side, I see it as a good side to build society. Rebuilding the country is not a problem, any country could be rebuilt later, but the main challenge is how to purify the next generation that saw these atrocities from the debris of what they saw psychologically and morally. That is the challenge, I think. I’m not pessimistic. I mean, if we get rid of the terrorists, I’m not pessimistic about the future of Syria.
Question 59: You’re talking about rebuilding the country. Who will pay for that?
President Assad: First of all, the country itself, and when you have the first projects start, the wheel of economy will move forward, and this is where it can generate its financial resources for itself. Second, the countries which supported the Syrian people with investments, like Russia, like China, like Iran, and many others. Third, every country and its investors that didn’t involve themselves or weren’t involved in shedding Syrian blood.
Question 60: In the last four years, I traveled all over the country, from Darra to Lattakia, to everywhere. It seems for me mission impossible to rebuild the country. Is it possible?
President Assad: No, it’s not impossible, because many countries have been destroyed in different crises like wars, like earthquakes, and so on. No, rebuilding the infrastructure, rebuilding the buildings, the concrete, is not something difficult. It’s not a big challenge. The most important challenge is to rebuild the human.
Question 61: That’s what I wanted to ask you about. I visited many houses in Syria, families and like that, and I think that each home in Syria is affected by the war. Children, men, women, elderly people, etc. They need help to rebuild themselves. What can you do? What can the world do to help them?
President Assad: We already started. We don’t have to wait till the end of the war to help those families. We already started helping them by grants, donations, loans, and other special services towards those bereaved families. You have of course different cases, different scenarios, so we already started this. But the most important part of any support is the moral support, how the society and the government embrace those families who lost dear members whether by coincidence or lost them during the fight against terrorists, in the army or the police or by supporting the army or the police directly. So this is the most important, and that’s I think what the Syrian society offered to those families, and that’s why we could withstand for four years, and as you said we are into the fifth year now.
Question 62: You’re talking about the Syrian society. How much is the Syrian society divided today?
President Assad: If the society is divided, automatically the country will be divided. Without this division, there are no such borders to divide a country, only the people can divide it, and it could be divided when you have these clear lines between sects or religions or ethnicities. Now, if you look at the society now in the safe areas, where you have many displaced people coming from place to place, living with each other. You look at the whole spectrum of the Syrian society living together. If you have real division, they wouldn’t live with each other.
Question 63: So, the country isn’t divided today?
President Assad: No, it’s not divided. There’s a big difference, and this is one of the wrong terms that’s been used in the media in the West: that there’s a civil war in Syria. There’s no civil war. Civil war should be based on sectarian or ethnic or certain clear lines. It’s not civil war, it’s a war between society and the terrorists. This is the real war, actually, in Syria. So, otherwise, they wouldn’t live with each other, and you can go and see that with your eyes, see all the spectrum, with no exception. When I say all, I don’t like to use the absolute word, but this is absolute that all the spectrum lives with each other, so it’s still the same. Actually, I would say that this homogeneity today is much stronger than before the war, because of the war, because as I said earlier, the Syrian people learned many lessons from that war. They are closer to each other than before the war.
Question 64: Mr. President, I think few people wish today to be in your place. It’s a very huge responsibility for Syria, what’s happening in Syria. Do you ever wish you could have stayed in London, working as an eye specialist instead?
President Assad: Of course, when I became an eye doctor, which is something I liked, I wanted to be a doctor because I like that profession and that sector. But at the end, I didn’t have my own clinic, I worked in the public sector, and my plan was to stay in the public sector. Actually, I moved from a public sector to a wider public sector, and you know the public sector is about how much you help the public. That’s self evident. So, the same principle with a little bit of a different method. So, there’s no big difference. If I stayed in London – actually I was a doctor in Syria before I became a doctor in London, because I worked here for three years. So, I think you mean to stay as a doctor. So, for me now, I don’t look backwards. The most important thing for me is how much I can help the public in Syria.
Question 65: But what do you miss most from your time in London?
President Assad: We’re talking about a different age, I was young. Maybe I miss youth. But actually, at that time when I used to live in London, when you go to a developed country, you go to specialize there, to get the knowledge, and because you get the knowledge there and you live there, you have to cherish this relation with that country as a country that gives you knowledge in order to develop your country. So, the background, the unconscious feeling toward that country is that country is helping me. You miss now, as Britain and France are the spearhead against Syria, you miss that feeling, that those countries want to help the Syrian people, not to kill them. That is what you miss.
Question 66: Mr. President, you are not only president and a doctor; you are a father. How do you explain to your children what is happening in Syria?
President Assad: Actually, in transparency, because they live in this society, they live with their colleagues at school, they watch different channels, they use the internet to see different kinds of opinions and atrocities at the same time, so you have to be fully transparent to explain to them what is going on. But the most important part of this dialogue is to focus on the values. The values in our society are not taken for granted anymore because of the situation that we’ve been living in. I mean, when they see killing, you have to focus more on the well-being, on the good will of that child. When they see terrorists that don’t accepts the others, that all the others should be killed because they don’t have the same ideology, you have to focus more on the value of accepting the other regardless of his ideology or affiliation. So, these things are the most important part of the dialogue in such a crisis between a father and mother and their children
Question 67: Do the children ask questions about the war?
President Assad: This is a daily dialogue, I think, in every house in Syria. This is our life now. The crisis is our life. The life of the youths, the children, the elderly, and everyone.
Question 68: We know Mr. President that you have lost friends and even relatives in this war. How has that affected you?
President Assad: Like any other family in the Middle East that would always be emotional, and the relation between the members of the family and the relatives and the friends are warm relations, warm links, so any loss will affect you deeply with sadness, but at the same time that will incite you to think more about how can you protect the threatened life in Syria now, that will incite you to think practically about what can you do from your position to help the rest of the Syrians, because the same feeling that I’m suffering from, millions of Syrians are suffering from the same feeling. That could be an important incentive for you to help the rest of the Syrians.
Question 69: Mr. President, what does it take, short of a miracle, to stop the war?
President Assad: First of all, stop the intervention from the outside, and I said earlier that our problem is not very complicated. The solution is very clear, but it’s more complicated because of external intervention. Stop it, stop the flow of terrorism and terrorists coming from Turkey by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the help of Erdogan himself, stop the flowing of armaments and money to them, stop giving any umbrella to the terrorists by the West under any titles, moderate or any other one. This is where the Syrian problem will be solved in a few months. It will not take long.
Journalist: Thank you, Mr. President.