Mr. President, the Syrian army has lost control over parts of Syria. Is your country collapsing?
We are not involved in a typical war in which we lose control over some parts of the country and gain control over other parts. It is not a war that pits one army against another army. Rather, our army is facing groups of gangs. It is correct to say that the army only wanted to move into an area if it could. If it wanted to do so, it indeed did so. As a result, we can control every area that we move into. The hunt for terrorists carries a high price. There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that we will completely wipe out the terrorists in our country. The problem is the destruction that is being caused in the process.
You use the word „terrorists“. Is every rebel a terrorist?
Does your country allow you to carry weapons, kill innocent people, terrorize citizens, destroy property and steal? In every country of the world, any person who carries weapons - with the exception of soldiers and police officers - for the explicit purpose of tormenting and killing people is considered to be a terrorist. And the people who are bearing arms in Syria are doing precisely this. No matter whether their intentions are extremist or criminal - they can be correctly labeled as terrorists. For this reason, we draw a distinction between terrorists and the opposition, which is political and has a political agenda. But the killing and slaughtering of people amounts to terrorism.
How long will the war last?
I have been asked from the very beginning when this crisis would come to an end. I have responded by saying that the crisis could last for a long time. After all, the external factor is obvious. An internal crisis will either be solved completely or it will evolve into a civil war. But neither the first scenario nor the second scenario has occurred. The reason for this is the external factor, which is determined to draw out the crisis both in political and military terms.
Aren’t you also partially responsible for the destruction of your country? In the beginning, the protests were purely political. They turned into an armed conflict only later.
From the very first days of the crisis, even several years before it broke out, we had begun to introduce reforms. We introduced a number of laws, the state of emergency was lifted, the constitution was amended, and a referendum on these changes was held. Perhaps, the West is aware of this and perhaps not. But what it refuses to see is this: Police officers were killed in the very first weeks of demonstrations - martyrs. How could police officers be killed during peaceful demonstrations? Armed people joined the ranks of demonstrators and fired at police officers. Sometimes, they took up positions not far from the demonstrations and fired on the protesters and police officers from there to make people think that one side was shooting at the other.
Centrifugal forces are at work in Syria at the moment. Some regions of the country are shifting their focus to neighboring countries. Will national borders in the Levant shift?
If you remove the keystone - Syria - from an arch, the entire arch will collapse. Each time someone plays with the borders in the region, the map has to be redrawn. This will create a domino effect that no one will be able to control. One of the world’s major powers could trigger this process. But no one will succeed in stopping this process at a particular point. New social boundaries have arisen in the Middle East - religious and national, in addition to political boundaries. They complicate the situation. As far as the redrawing of the map goes, no one can image how the region will look. It will probably be a map of countless wars in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere that no one will be able to stop.
What will the regional order look like in the future?
If we can eliminate the scenario in which Syria undergoes a destructive division, I foresee a different, positive scenario. The first challenge is restoring security and stability. The second is reconstruction. But the biggest and most important challenge is opposing extremism. After all, we have seen a shift toward extremism in some societies in the region and a shift away from tolerance, particularly regarding matters of religion. The question arises as to whether we will be able to successfully reposition these societies as they were in the past. Some people speak of tolerance, while others talk of coexistence. If a person considers himself to be tolerant, he or she can suddenly become intolerant from one day to the next. It is not simply a question of mere coexistence. Rather, it is a matter of joining parts of a society. This has been a distinguishing quality of this region. The other challenge is the reform that we want. The continuous question is: What is the best political system capable of holding our society together: a presidential or semi-presidential system? A parliamentary one? What is the appropriate party system? We cannot have any religious parties - regardless of whether they are Christian or Islamic. We view religion as a matter of personal belief. We do not consider it an instrument to push a political agenda. The most important principle is to accept the beliefs of others. If you do not do this, no democracy can exist, even if we have the best constitution and the best laws.
What does secularism mean in an area where Islamic tendencies are growing?
The Middle East is an ideology-driven region. Arabian society rests on two pillars: pan-Arabism and Islam. Nothing else has this meaning. We in Syria consider secularism to be freedom of religion: Christians, Muslims and Jews with all of their many movements. Secularism is essential if you want to create social unity and a feeling of nationality. There is no alternative to this. After all, the religions in our region are strong at the same time. This is good and not bad. What is bad is when fanaticism turns into terrorism. Not every fanatic is a terrorist. But every terrorist is a fanatic. For this reason, I say this: The concept that underpins our secular country is that every individual has the right to freely practice his or her religion. No one is treated differently because of his or her religion, beliefs and race.
What do you think about the „Arab awakening,“ which some people call the „Arab spring“?
During a spring, you will see no bloodshed, no killing and no extremism. Schools are not destroyed. Children will not be prohibited from going to school. And a woman will not be prevented from dressing as she chooses. What we are experiencing today is not a spring. Just look at what is happening in Syria - killing, slaughter, decapitation, even cannibalism.
You have accused such countries as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Great Britain of meddling in Syria’s internal affairs. Aren’t Russia and Iran actively involved as well?
There is a major difference between an alliance among countries and involvement in the internal affairs of a country with the aim of destabilizing it. Countries work together with the aim of preserving their sovereignty, their independence, their decision-making freedom and their stability. The relationship between Syria and Russia, Iran and other countries that are on Syria’s side is a relationship of cooperation that is guaranteed by international law. But the countries you just mentioned are interfering in Syria’s internal affairs with the policies they are pursuing. This meddling is a glaring breach of international law and the sovereignty of a country. It is designed to destabilize the country and spread chaos and regression.
Lebanon and Iraq are experiencing religious tensions. Are Sunnis and Shiites in both countries shifting their conflicts to Syria?
If you have religious systems, religious unrest or civil wars in your neighborhood - as was the case 30 years ago in Lebanon - you will end up being drawn into the conflict. For this reason, Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 to defend itself and Lebanon as well. For this reason, we also follow events in Iraq because we are directly affected by them. Opposing the war in Iraq was critically important, despite the threats the Americans made at the time. Religion-based order is dangerous.
The Nusra Front is fighting on the side of the rebels in Syria. Who are they? And who is supplying them with guns and money?
The Nusra Front is a branch of Al Qaeda. It espouses the same ideology. It can be found in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. It is primarily financed by anonymous individuals and organization who share the same ideology. They have huge sums of money and guns. The money flows directly to the Nusra Front. It is difficult to trace the source and recipients of these resources. The Nusra Front aims to create an Islamic state and primarily draws its beliefs from the Wahhabi movement of Islam. In the end, this flows into the concept of Al Qaeda - just look at the situation in Afghanistan. This primarily affects women. The Nusra Front wants to apply Islamic law, the Shariah. This is a distorted and deformed version of Islam. On YouTube, you can see just how barbaric they are. Belgian television recently showed a report in which an innocent person was beheaded with an axe. The members of the Nusra Front come from Syria, other Arab and Islamic countries as well as Europe.
What is your opinion of the Syrian policies of France and Great Britain?
I think France and Great Britain have a problem with what they believe is Syria’s disruptive role in the region. They and the United States are looking for lackeys and puppets who will represent their interests. We have refused to go along. We have always been autonomous and free. Historically, France and Great Britain are colonial powers. They have probably never forgotten this either. Their work in this region is carried out by representatives and collaborators. France and Great Britain may direct Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We should not forget that the policies and economies of France and Great Britain depend on petrodollars. What is happening in Syria right now is an opportunity for these countries to push an intractable country to the edge and find a new president who will always say „yes.“ They have not found him yet, and they will not find him in the future.
The EU has decided not to extend its arms embargo against Syria, but has not yet decided to supply weapons to the rebels.
I cannot say that the Europeans are on Syria’s side. Some countries have assumed a hostile position toward Syria, particularly France and Great Britain. The other countries, primarily Germany, are raising rational questions about supplying terrorists with arms. What would happen? First, Syria would suffer even more destruction. Who would pay the price? The Syrian people. Second, the Europeans would supply arms and know that they would be supplying them to terrorists. Some draw a distinction between „good“ and „bad“ fighters, just as they drew a distinction between „good“ and „bad“ Taleban a few years ago and „good“ and „bad“ Al Qaeda. Does this make sense? If the Europeans supply weapons, Europe’s backyard would become a terrorist haven, and Europe would pay a price for this. Terrorism would mean chaos here. Chaos would lead to poverty, and poverty would mean that Europe would lose an important market. The second effect would be the direct export of terrorism to Europe. Terrorists seasoned in battle and armed with extremist ideology would return. For Europe, there is no alternative to working with the Syrian state, even if Europe may not like this.
Do you see yourself as being part of the fight against terrorism?
Reason tells you so. Unfortunately, leaders in Europe are not taking a rational, realistic and objective approach. They are being influenced by negative emotions and not reason. Politics deals with interests. It is not based on love or hate. As a German, you should ask yourself a question: What is your interest in the events of this region? The events here are directed against the interests of Europe. After all, Europe has an interest in fighting terrorism.
Many people consider the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. It is fighting on the side of the Syrian army, in places like Qusair. There have also been reports that the Pasdaran of Iran are training Syrian units. Do you need these allies?
The media are trying to make people think that Hezbollah is fighting because the Syrian army is weak. In reality, we have achieved a number of major victories in recent months in various regions, and these victories are more important than Qusair. But nothing is reported about them. No one but the Syrian army is fighting in such areas. Local militias have been formed, and they are defending their own territory working together with the army. This is the key to our success. Qusair was of special significance because Western leaders had called it a strategic city. This is an exaggeration. But there were many armed people and arsenals in the city.
What role did Hezbollah play?
The terrorists had begun firing on Hezbollah villages on the border. It was inevitable that Hezbollah would step in with the Syrian army in order to put an end to the chaos. The Syrian army is a large force and can carry out its mission with the help of local citizens in all areas. If we really needed help, we would have deployed Hezbollah forces in the area around Damascus. You know that fighting is taking place on the outskirts of Damascus. Damascus is much more important than Qusair. Aleppo is also more important than Qusair. All major cities are. This propaganda has two purposes: First, to show that Hezbollah is doing the work. Second, to turn Western and international opinion against Hezbollah.
How large are Hezbollah’s units in Syria?
There are no units. It has sent individual fighters along the border, in places like those where the terrorists near Qusair were. They have supported the Syrian army in a mopping-up operation along the Lebanese border. Hezbollah’s forces are based toward Israel and cannot leave the south of Lebanon. And even if Hezbollah sent fighters to Syria, how many can they be? A few hundred? We are talking about a battle with 100000 Syrian soldiers. Several hundred can have an impact in one place, but certainly cannot change the balance of power in Syria.
The French and British governments claim to have proof that the Syrian army used chemical weapons. The U.S. government is now saying this as well. Why are you granting U.N. inspectors access only to Aleppo?
Let me begin with what the White House claims - that 150 people were killed by chemical weapons in one year. From a military perspective, conventional weapons can kill many more people on one day than this number. Weapons of mass destruction are capable of killing hundreds and thousands of people at once. That is why they are used. For this reason, it makes no sense to use chemical weapons to kill the same number of people that could be achieved by using conventional weapons. France and Great Britain as well as some U.S. and European leaders have said we deployed these types of weapons in some areas of Syria. We have neither declared that we possess chemical weapons nor have we denied this. If Paris, London and Washington were to have one iota of proof backing up their claims, they would have presented this evidence to the world. Where is the chain of evidence that would lead one to the conclusion that „Syria used chemical weapons?“ To prove that it is the terrorists who are using chemical weapons, we asked the United Nations to send an inspection team to the site where the terrorists deployed chemical weapons - and this was in Aleppo. The French and the British blocked this request. Had the inspection team been allowed to come, they would have determined that the terrorists were the ones who used chemical weapons. Everything that is being said about the use of chemical weapons is a continuation of the lies being told about Syria. It is an attempt to justify an increased military intervention.
Why then did you reject the U.N. inspection mission?
We will eventually see that France and Great Britain are not telling the truth. They wanted the inspectors to receive access to all sites and to conduct the same type of work they did in Iraq. During this work, they intervened in affairs that went beyond their mandate. We are a state, we have our army, and we have our secrets. We will not allow others to learn our secrets - not the United Nations, not France, not Great Britain and not anyone else.
Why is the Syrian army bombing residential areas?
We will pursue terrorists wherever they go. And they often go into residential areas. Take Qusair as an example. Western media reports spoke of 50000 civilians in Qusair. The number of residents in this town was originally much lower. When the terrorists seized this town, many residents left. We encountered virtually no civilians when we moved into Qusair. When the terrorists arrive, civilians leave all areas and fighting ensues. Evidence of this is the fact that most of the victims are members of the military. The civilians were killed by the terrorists, who execute people and use civilians as human shields. A large number of civilians were killed by suicide bombers or car bombs. The rest of the fatalities can be attributed to either Syrian or foreign-born terrorists.
After your army seized the city of Qusair, why didn’t you use the opportunity to extend a hand of national reconciliation to the opposition?
From the very beginning, we have reached out to anyone who wanted to engage in dialogue. We have not altered this stance. At the beginning of the crisis, we conducted a national dialogue conference. At the same time, we were fighting the terrorists. When we talk about the opposition, we should not lump everyone together. We should not put terrorists and politicians into the same camp. In Germany, there is an opposition. But it does not carry weapons. When we speak of the opposition, we are talking about politicians. We are always willing to engage in dialogue with these politicians. This has nothing to do with Qusair. I do not believe that national reconciliation is a suitable term. What is happening in our country is not a civil war like the one in Lebanon. It is also not an issue like the one between whites and blacks in South Africa. It is about a dialogue that aims to find a way out of the crisis and to prompt the terrorists to lay down their arms. The Geneva peace conference will pursue these stated political aims. Thus, the political process has not come to a standstill. But there are external obstacles - Turkey, Qatar, Saudi-Arabia, France and Great Britain. They do not want to engage in dialogue. Rather, they want the unrest to continue, which is delaying dialogue and a political solution.
With whom are you willing to sit down and negotiate?
With any oppositional group that does not carry weapons, does not condone terrorism and has a political agenda. The opposition must prove itself in elections, that is, in local elections and - most importantly - in parliamentary elections. We are facing forces that call themselves the opposition. We ask ourselves two questions about them: What sort of base do they have among the people? What is their political agenda? We then act accordingly.
Why have you not yet entered into negotiations with the opposition in Syria?
We invited everyone who considered themselves to be part of the opposition to the first dialogue conference in 2011. Some came, while the others declined our invitation, saying that we did not address their concerns. What did they mean by that? What should we offer them? A cabinet position? They do not hold any seats in the parliament. How can we know who deserves to be a member of government? One needs criteria and benchmarks to determine this. This is not decided on a whim. The only opposition in the parliament today is the opposition that won seats in the parliament. To make myself clear: The state is not owned by the president who can just give presents away in the form of ministries. It is a national process. Government and the constitution are determined by the people. Our doors are open.
Is there room for a political solution?
When the opposition is independent and has a national base, we have no problem with it. The oppositional groups abroad are reporting to Western foreign ministries and their intelligence organizations. Those who finance these groups dictate their decisions. To us, the opposition must represent a portion of the population and not a foreign country. To be considered a genuine oppositional force, one must live in Syria with the Syrian people and experience its problems and difficulties. Only then can this opposition be a part of the political process.
You have said you do not negotiate with slaves, only with their masters. What do you mean?
I used this comparison to clearly show what is happening. On television, we saw how the French ambassador to Syria spoke with the Syrian opposition, how he issued orders to it and how he even berated it. In another video, members of the opposition talked about how the American ambassador in Syria criticized them. In practical terms, we will negotiate with the United States, France and Great Britain as well as their underlings Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The forces who call themselves the opposition outside Syria are simply employees and, in this regard, slaves.
What do you expect the Syrian conference to accomplish when it is held this summer in Geneva?
We hope the Geneva conference will be an important milestone toward promoting dialogue in Syria. Particularly because we announced a vision for a political solution at the beginning of the year. We should not forget that some countries have no interest in success in Geneva. These are the same countries that are supporting terrorism in Syria. Should the conference succeed - and this is what we are hoping for - in prohibiting weapons from being smuggled into Syria and terrorists from slipping into the country -terrorists from 29 countries are already there - then this would be the foundation for success. If that does not happen and the terrorism continues, what would be the value of a political solution? A political solution would be based on stopping terrorists and weapons from entering Syria. We hope that the Geneva conference will start with this issue. Should it succeed in making this decision, I would consider the conference to be a success. Without this result, the conference would be a failure.
What would a failure of the conference mean?
If the Syrian crisis is not stopped, it will spread to other countries, and the situation will get worse. It would make sense for all sides to have interest in a success. But the opposition outside Syria would lose its funding if the conference succeeded. If you do not have money or support among the people, you have nothing at all.
Can the Geneva conference produce a transition government made up of people from various political blocs?
We are committed to forming a more inclusive government that represents various sides and will lay the groundwork for parliamentary elections. Those who succeed in the elections will join the government. There will be no room in the government for those who do not.
It is said that, following so much bloodshed, a new beginning is possible only with new leaders. Are you prepared to leave the presidency?
The constitution spells out the powers of the president. His legislative period ends in 2014. Should the country be in a crisis, the powers of the president are larger, not smaller. Of course, you cannot turn your back on the country at a time of crisis. I regularly compare the situation with a ship that has entered a storm. Imagine that the captain would abandon ship and hop into a lifeboat. To give up under these circumstances would amount to committing serious national treason. It is another matter when the people decide that a person should leave office. How can you know whether the people want a person to leave office? Either through elections or a referendum. Fifty-eight percent of voters took part in the referendum on the new constitution. A total of 89.4 percent approved the new constitution. This is a good indicator. The president is not the problem. Other countries want the president to step down and be replaced by a lackey of their choosing.