Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Al-Hayat: al-Qaida’s Presence in Lebanon is Growing … Sometimes We Pursue Terrorists and They Flee There. We Accept the Principle of Having an Embassy (in Lebanon) and Reject Having it Imposed. The Game of Demarcating the Shebaa Farms Borders has Well-Known Objectives. By Ghassan Charbel (Part I)
Ghassan Charbel Al- Hayat - 27/06/06
DAMASCUS - On the way to the office of President Bashar al-Assad, the questions multiply in one’s mind. The region is boiling and its wounds are open ones. The storm of the Iranian nuclear crisis is provoking anxiety in more than one Arab capital, accompanied by questions about the depth of the relationship between Damascus and Tehran. The situation in Iraq requires no explanation or interpretation; there are those who see that any recovery of an Arab role (in the region) must begin there. The Palestinian situation in Gaza and the West Bank is difficult and dangerous. Besides the Israeli siege (of the Palestinians) accompanied by daily aggression, there is the danger of sliding into civil war. The Lebanese-Syria relationship has yet to recover from the shock of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and the preceding and subsequent group of United Nations Security Council resolutions that aim to pressure Damascus and demand that it take certain steps. America and Syria are not on speaking terms, and neither are Damascus and French President Jacques Chirac. In addition, there are other questions, about inter-Arab relations and Arab political efforts.
For two hours, al-Hayat discussed the most important issues with the Syrian president in this interview, in which al-Hayat’s Damascus bureau chief, Ibrahim Hamidi, took part.
Al-Hayat: Mr. President, I arrived in Damascus from Amman, where I sensed profound anxiety by King Abdullah II about what he considers the retreat of the Arab role in favor of an Iranian role in the region. Do you have the impression that this role has declined to this extent?
President al-Assad: First, we should determine whether the Arab role was present or not. I don’t believe that we can see an important Arab role, other than at the formal level. In the media, regarding meetings, visits by delegations, and statements, we see an Arab role. However, I don’t think there is a true Arab role in terms of content. In any case, there is nothing preventing any other state in the region from playing an effective role, and this includes Iran, which is an important state. However, more importantly, if we are anxious or fearful, or object to a role of any state in this region, the solution is for there to be an Arab role. In order to get away from the traditional Arab style of crying over the past, we must move effectively, and in the direction of having this Arab role. No one is preventing us from having an active Arab role. As for the Iranian role in the region, I think it is an important one, and Iran is an important state in the region and its role is necessary for the stability of the region, being complementary to an Arab role, and not as a substitute for it. The Arab role is very important, in parallel with any other role, for Iran or someone else, provided that we decide to play this role. If we don’t decide this, we have no right to speak of any other role, whether positive or negative.
Al-Hayat: Can we say that the Iranian role in the region is necessary for its stability, but not an alternative to an Arab role?
President al-Assad: Exactly.
Al-Hayat: I asked King Abdullah II about the reason for the coolness in Syrian-Jordanian relations, and he surprised me by saying that a half hour earlier, he had spoken with you by telephone.
President al-Assad: That’s correct.
Al-Hayat: Is there a decision to return some of the warmth to these relations?
President al-Assad: In general, inter-Arab relations exhibit a lack of contact. We do our work and celebrate it. If there is an event, or events, whether a summit meeting, the meeting of a joint committee, or a telephone call, there is no follow-up, and issues remain at the level of the summit. Thus, in most relations we see this kind of coolness, and not just in the ties between Syria and Jordan, but in inter-Arab relations. We are trying to return some vitality to this relationship, especially since we are headed for a meeting of the joint Syrian-Jordanian Committee. However, the goal is to continue follow-up on this meeting, through the relationship between the King and the President. In (today’s) telephone call, I invited King Abdullah II to visit Damascus at a time he deems suitable.
Al-Hayat: Has the Jordanian rebuke of Syria sprung from security-related matters?
President al-Assad: Sometimes, we see no reason for a fundamental dispute between Arab countries. There is no fundamental dispute between us and Jordan. We have points of view about politics about which we differ slightly or considerably with Jordan, and with others. There is a relationship between the countries’ security organizations, which is affected negatively and positively, due to the joint performance of these agencies. I don’t think there is a rebuke, since we have a common goal. There is not really a rebuke. If we talk specifically about security matters, all Arab regimes today have the same anxiety, and especially after the war in Iraq. There is extremism and terrorism, which are spreading, and everyone is suffering from this. Regarding the security issue, there are no disputes, but rather mistakes that take place, and we put responsibility for this on the official, or bureaucrat, at a given level. These things happen, and they are settled. We are now trying to return some of the warmth to this relationship, through economic issues and political relations, as well as the security side.
The Egyptian-Syrian Dialogue
Al-Hayat: Did you sense, with President Hosni Mubarak (of Egypt), a type of anxiety about the rising Iranian role in the region during your last meeting?
President al-Assad: I can’t speak on behalf of President Hosni Mubarak. Of course, President Mubarak and I are discussing all things frankly, and I referred to the Iranian role, in answer to the first question. I spoke with President Mubarak about the Arab role, and I said frankly that there are those who talk about the Iranian role in a negative way. The solution is an Arab role; therefore, we called for Arab movement toward Iraq, since it’s the primary arena when we talk about the Iranian role. We discussed the Palestinian situation, but this was an entry toward raising the topic of the Iranian role, by discussing the Arab role.
Al-Hayat: May we know more about your meeting with President Mubarak? Did he try to make efforts to improve Syrian-Jordanian relations?
President al-Assad: We discussed this issue, but the contact between me and King Abdullah II had taken place a day earlier, and things were moving naturally toward warming the relationship up once again, if not an improvement in the relationship, which is not bad, but does have some deficiencies. However, President Mubarak was keen, during the discussion, to receive a reassurance about this aspect, and I explained to him that things were moving in a natural path.
Al-Hayat: Certainly, the topic of Lebanese-Syrian relations was part of the summit (with Mubarak).
President al-Assad: We passed over it briefly. The principal discussion was on the Palestinian and Iraqi situations. You might ask why - it’s not because Lebanon isn’t important. It is important to Syria, and Egypt, and all Arab states, and everyone is trying to become reassured when it comes to Syrian-Lebanese relations in general. However, the truth is that the performance of many politicians has lost Lebanon credibility at the political level in the Arab world. What we hear from most Arab presidents, kings and princes who have visited Syria recently bears this out. This (topic) is not a central political one, but is one that is discussed in quick fashion.
Al-Hayat: Did President Mubarak once again ask that you receive the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora?
President al-Assad: President Mubarak says, and always asks us: "What can you do to improve this relationship?" I explain things to him. Regarding Siniora, everyone knows that I have asked him to come twice. The first was when we were at the Arab Summit, and he told me, after our greetings, "I want to come to Damascus." I told him, "You are most welcome. But set down an agenda and be honest with us, and you’re most welcome." He didn’t come, or set down an agenda, or ask for any appointment. The second time was after the visit of (Lebanese) Speaker Nabih Berri. Speaker Berri said, "We’d like to see Prime Minister Siniora come, without an agenda." I said, "We have no problem," after the session of National Dialogue that was taking place at the time, when Speaker Berri told the media that the doors of Damascus were open, but Prime Minister Siniora didn’t come. What more can Syria do?
Al-Hayat: We should infer that the responsibility for the absence of a visit falls on Prime Minister Siniora?
President al-Assad: Of course. Syria welcomed him twice, and I made the announcements. There was no second or third person, there was no mediator in this issue.
Al-Hayat: Speaker Berri said that the doors of Damascus were open to all Lebanese, and he meant Prime Minister Siniora. Are the doors of Damascus open to General Michel Aoun?
President al-Assad: Of course, certainly.
Al-Hayat: Have there been contacts to arrange his coming to Damascus?
President al-Assad: Not yet, especially since we’re awaiting the results of the Lebanese National Dialogue. At times we remain distant from some of the details, so that Syria isn’t accused of being part of this dialogue, and thus be accused of being the party that obstructs the dialogue, if there is an obstacle, or that it is halting dialogue, or something like this. In principle, the doors of Damascus are open, certainly.
Al-Hayat: There is a session of National Dialogue coming up. If I ask you for advice about how to see this dialogue succeed, without this being labeled Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs, what is your advice to the participants, as the president of a neighboring state?
President al-Assad: First of all, they should be honest. Second, the dialogue should be based on the belief in Lebanon as a nation, and not the Lebanon of sects, or Lebanon as local interests, which sometimes aren’t bigger than a few neighborhoods. This is the basic principle. This is not considered intervention; everything that moves in this direction will be good.
Al-Hayat: MP Saad al-Hariri was quoted today as telling French President Jacques Chirac, or hinting to him, that Syria is trying to deepen division in Lebanon.
President al-Assad: Is the current division in Lebanon the product of the last few days, or months, or years? It’s part of the history of Lebanon. It didn’t arise during the civil war, or during the Syrian presence. It predated the French presence itself. First of all, talk about division is fabricated, and unrealistic. The second point is: what does Syria gain? It’s a simple question. The first question you should ask is, what is Syria’s interest in deepening the division? Syria paid with blood in Lebanon. Syria didn’t receive financial payment, but paid with blood, which is the most precious thing. Syria shouldered international pressure for decades, for the sake of Lebanon. Let’s assume now that Syria is doing this - deepening division - which means that the situation will lead once again to a civil war. Was the civil war, when it began in 1975, detrimental to Syria, while today it is useful? This is illogical; division and the repercussions are directly detrimental to Syria.
Al-Hayat: If Saad al-Hariri becomes prime minister, will Speaker Berri’s comments about the doors of Damascus being open remain in effect?
President al-Assad: Yes. This matter was broached with us five or six months ago, and we said the same thing, regardless of the post. It was broached in the form of a question as to whether Saad al-Hariri would be received if he came to Damascus, and we said of course he would. He poses no problem for us. In Syria, our politics does not descend to the level of Lebanese (political) statements. We have remained loftier than this. There are no personal factors in politics, but public interests.
Al-Hayat: Should we understand that an Arab party tried to (improve) relations between you and MP Saad al-Hariri?
President al-Assad: It didn’t reach the level of (improving) the relationship. The question was posed as is: are you prepared to receive him? We didn’t know if there was a true desire by him to come, or whether it was just a question. I don’t know, and we didn’t ask about the details.
Al-Hayat: To continue with the Lebanese issue, Syria praised the report by UN investigator Serge Brammertz, his mission, and his professionalism. There is the belief, among critics of Syria, that Lebanon has decided to separate the investigation and Lebanese-Syrian relations; however, Syria is still anxious about the investigation. Is this true?
President: The anxiety has, until now, not been about the investigation. Four reports have been issued thus far. Two by the former committee, whose goal was to incriminate Syria, and even so, the first and second reports were unable to do so. They accused Syria, without presenting anything, and thus the report was weak. The last two reports appeared to be professional, as Syria has said, and they didn’t accuse Syria. Thus, in terms of content, the course of the investigation, with its contradictory phases, has been reassuring to Syria, and not the opposite. I sometimes say that the first part was reassuring, perhaps like the second part, because when there was an attempt to accuse us, it didn’t work. When the report is professional, of course this will be even more to our advantage. However, the anxiety is not over this topic, since we took a stance on this from the beginning, and we haven’t changed it since Syria was first accused. The anxiety is about the amount of international pressure that is meant to see the course of the investigation deviate. We hope that they don’t succeed in intervening, and moving the (investigation) away from its professionalism; this is the only anxiety. We’re not anxious about the course of the investigations, because we think things are moving toward clarifying that Syria had nothing to do with this, especially with the increase in possibilities. This is the natural course of the investigation, that there be different possibilities, as was stated in the last report.
Al-Hayat: Including the possibility of a suicide bomber?
President al-Assad: All of the possibilities. We didn’t say that Syria shouldn’t be one of the possibilities, but it’s unreasonable for Syria to be the only one. This is the difference between the current report and the others.
Al-Hayat: Mr. President, you announced that if a relationship (with the assassination) is proved to have taken place with a Syrian individual, that person will be handed over.
President al-Assad: That person would be a traitor, and before being handed over he will be held accountable, according to Syrian law. Syrian law is very strict about this matter.
Al-Hayat: Will Brammertz visit Syria again, and has he requested to come?
President al-Assad: No, he hasn’t.
Al-Hayat: Were you comfortable after your meeting with him?
President al-Assad: Before the meeting and afterward, because, to begin with, our position in Syria was that if an investigator comes to you to hear your point of view, you’re the winner. (Detlev) Mehlis (the previous investigator) asked to see me twice, and I refused each time. In fact, we didn’t even give an answer, regardless of any international or other situation, such as the UN Security Council, because the goal (behind the requests) was obvious. When Brammertz came, the situation was different for us. I was personally enthusiastic, because the political background is important in such an investigation. I was comfortable before, during and after the meeting, which was a good one.
Al-Hayat: How long did the meeting last?
President al-Assad: About an hour.
Al-Hayat: Does he have requests of Syria that haven’t been met?
President al-Assad: No, he was clear in the report, when he said that Syria’s cooperation has been satisfactory. In light of the current political conditions, this is good. He cannot say that cooperation has been satisfactory and at the same time that Syria has not cooperated, not even about one point, even if a small one. He would have mentioned Syria’s non-cooperation, but he didn’t, which means that Syria has cooperated in everything, and this cooperation is ongoing and open, in the framework of the investigation and the framework of the professionalism of this investigation.
Al-Hayat: Why are there fears that Syria’s allies in Lebanon are trying to bring down the government, to make the matter of the international tribunal more complicated in the coming phase?
President al-Assad: I have only heard such talk on a limited scale. But logically, the goal of the international tribunal is to arrive at conclusions based upon the investigation. The investigation has not ended. Usually, when a crime is committed, the police or investigators arrive and give their data to the court. How can a court be set up, if the investigation is not finished, and there is no data based on anything? The goal is political, the game is obvious.
Al-Hayat: If a friend of Syria becomes the prime minister of Lebanon tomorrow, will we see a Syrian embassy in Lebanon?
President al-Assad: Regarding the embassy, I raised this issue during the last meeting of the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Committee, when President Emile Lahoud, Speaker Berri and Prime Minister (Omar) Karami were in Damascus in March 2005, and there was no Lebanese pressure. I said, "We have no problem, and if you think that there is a need for an embassy, study the matter, and we’ll see about any contradiction between it and the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council. In principle, we do not reject an embassy, and it’s illogical for us to reject an embassy, or say that there is no need for one. Syria has never rejected the idea of an embassy in Lebanon, but would say that it wasn’t necessary, especially due to the distance between Beirut and Damascus, which is shorter than Damascus and Homs. This is in principle, i.e. we have relations without an embassy. Thus, we have no objection in principle to an embassy, but an embassy cannot be imposed, whether by local, regional or international actors. This is our viewpoint regarding the embassy.
Al-Hayat: The issue of demarcating the borders has been raised, and UN Security Council Resolution 1680 asks Syria to demarcate the borders (between it and Lebanon). What is your position on this?
President al-Assad: In November, prior to the decision, there was a direct response by the Syrian Prime Minister to the letter by Prime Minister Siniora, containing Syria’s approval of demarcating the borders. But the game is pretty clear. Even if we agree, we knew what Siniora’s game was. At the time, the issue was the Shebaa Farms. For us, we cannot demarcate the Shebaa Farms right now. We should begin in the north, or somewhere else, but not in the Shebaa Farms, under Israeli occupation. This is our position, which is clear. As for demarcating the border, as you know, two years ago we demarcated the border with Jordan, and there was no problem.
Al-Hayat: In Cairo, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem talked about committees being operational; are there actually committees that are active, or not?
President al-Assad: According to the information, and this is an old topic; it has been the case for decades. There are actually committees, but I don’t know if they are meeting or not. However, this matter is as old as the 1970s. In principle, we have no problem. However, they want to create a problem out of it.
Al-Hayat: Returning to Lebanon, is Syria waiting the results of the National Dialogue, or a deterioration in Lebanon, to be followed by a request to bring the situation under control in Lebanon?
President al-Assad: When they posed the question of how we deal with Lebanon, even before the Syrian withdrawal, I would say to them, which Lebanon? We see the political class as an expression of "Lebanons." Now, when we engage in dialogue with a given party, it doesn’t mean that we doing so with other parties. Lebanese should first unify themselves. I believe that you can hear this kind of talk, even in the Arab media, and in newspaper articles, etc., because the problem is in Lebanon. First, Lebanese should settle their problems and put forward a clear vision; then, we will be ready then to undertake an initiative of dealing with Lebanon in a certain way. However, today there are different directions, and contradictions between them, and whichever direction we deal with, the other side believes that we are dealing with a group that doesn’t represent them. When Lebanese reach a final agreement and final details about all of the issues on the table, Syria will be able to deal with Lebanon, comfortably.
Al-Hayat: Did the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon lead to a change in the relationship between Damascus and Hizbullah?
President al-Assad: No, not at all. The relationship wasn’t built on a military presence at all.
Al-Hayat: This means that the warmth characterizing your relationship with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah remains?
President al-Assad: It continues as is, and hasn’t changed at all, not at all.
Al-Hayat: Does Syria have fewer cards to play after its withdrawal from Lebanon?
President al-Assad: On the contrary, since we had to bear all of the negatives, even if we had nothing to do with a given matter. Today, it is difficult to hold us responsible for all the negatives. Today it’s totally clear where the problem lies, despite all of the accusations in the media. However, when it comes to the average citizen in Lebanon, he knows that Syria has nothing to do with most things. Even if there were mistakes, and I have discussed this in the past, they do not exist today. These mistakes existed when we were in Lebanon, and today we are not present. So, who is blamed for them? Things didn’t improve and it didn’t appear that these issues, for which Syria used to be held responsible, were things that Syria was responsible for. On the contrary, even regarding the Syrian people, some people would ask, what are we doing in Lebanon? Today the answer is clear when it comes to where the problem lies.
Al-Hayat: Was it a difficult night when you took the decision to exit Lebanon?
President al-Assad: No. Not because the decision was difficult, but because the conditions of the exit involved a dispute with the populace, and not the politicians. The politicians have their interests, and they remain limited. However, when a wide segment of the Lebanese people believes that you are the problem in Lebanon, or that you’re behind the assassination of PM Hariri, or that you’re an occupier, or all of these accusations… this is certainly hurtful to all Syrians, without exception. Whoever says different is lying. This was the difficult part. When we decided to pull out Syrian forces in stages, the presence of these forces in any place was a burden. It was a burden on the forces, the state, and the other country. This is natural, and its natural for the forces to return. Whenever we took out more forces, we became more comfortable in practice, but the form of the relationship with the Lebanese people is what hurt Syrians very much.
Al-Hayat: Can you say that Syria has no nostalgic desire to return to Lebanon, whether militarily or administratively?
President al-Assad: I can tell you that if you ask Syrian military men, they will be the first to say no, because the mission was difficult. There were great responsibilities, and it was no picnic. If some people were comfortable, that doesn’t mean that tens of thousands of Syrian fighters were comfortable. They were living out in the open, and there were no camps or anything. When they are in their own country, there are military bases and provisions, while in Lebanon the opposite was the case, the conditions were difficult. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Syria won’t stand with Lebanon, and I am not talking here about the political form. But I’d like to discuss the word "nostalgia." Nostalgia is one thing, and Syria assisting Lebanon at a certain time is something else. Perhaps readers will confuse the two. When it comes to "nostalgia," in an emotional sense, no. We had a mission, and Syria will remain responsible for its missions in the future, under any conditions.
Al-Hayat: Is there still contact with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud?
President al-Assad: It never stopped, or changed. We speak every Saturday morning; this morning, we spoke with each other.
Al-Hayat: How is he?
President al-Assad: He hasn’t changed. President Lahoud’s morale is high, and can’t experience a drop, under any conditions.
Al-Hayat: Can you help us with something simple? Who will be Lebanon’s next president?
President al-Assad: Today, we can answer quite easily that it remains unclear. The National Dialogue will settle the future of Lebanon. I don’t know if (the participants) have agreed yet about any of the core issues. Take, for example, the election law. Sectarian division was present, even during the Syrian presence, and after the Taif Accord. We see that this division is growing today. How will they deal with these matters? None of the provisions of Taif has been implemented, and at the forefront of this is the abolition of sectarianism in politics. All of these issues will play a role in determining the form of Lebanon and the speed at which a president is elected. I don’t think anyone can say who the next president will be, and it’s early to talk about this subject.
The Relationship with Lahoud
Al-Hayat: Do you feel that you can have a relationship with General Michel Aoun that is similar to the one with President Lahoud, since they are both military men?
President al-Assad: Our principle, regarding President Lahoud, is that the relationship is not a personal one - the principle is one of institutions. President Lahoud truly was one of the most difficult people with which Syria could deal, which is the opposite of what others think. He would be able to explain many of the things that happened between him and Syria.
President Lahoud is known for being firm and he not compromising easily. He doesn’t do something unless he’s convinced about it. This is his first distinguishing feature. A second is that he is a patriot, and the third is that he is non-sectarian. The fourth - of course, this is not in a particular order - is that he believes in the Arab relationship and in an Arab Lebanon. All of these things are fundamental when it comes to Lebanon’s stability. We will work to the utmost with any president who enjoys such characteristics. As for General Aoun, I don’t know him personally, but if we make a logical comparison, the people who called themselves allies of Syria are the ones who are conspiring against it.
At times, our relations were not good with General Aoun; they involved confrontation, but he has not tried to seek revenge against Syria, or harm it. On the contrary, he defends Syria, which is something that we must recognize, and we cannot deny this. We do not think about the position, but the person, first and foremost.
Al-Hayat: Is there a plan for Aoun to visit Syria, and are contacts underway?
President al-Assad: Today, as I have said, before the National Dialogue concludes, we are trying not to involve ourselves in very wide-scale relations with the various sides in Lebanon, although we have an interest in establishing the widest possible relations with the Lebanese, and of course the various political currents, including General Aoun.
Al-Hayat: Are relations closed forever with MP Walid Jumblatt?
President al-Assad: We didn’t close this door, he did. It was closed politically, and then morally. All of the limits have been crossed. There is no contact whatsoever.
Al-Hayat: There’s no chance of (seeing this change)?
President al-Assad: It would be very difficult.
Al-Hayat: MP Jumblatt talks a lot about security fears.
President al-Assad: That is his problem.
Al-Hayat: On another subject, is it difficult for the President of the Syrian Arab Republic to have relations based on equality with Lebanon, as asked for by Prime Minister Siniora?
President al-Assad: On the contrary, when relations are those of equals, this means that Lebanon has no need for (foreign protection), meaning that it will become Arab. But if relations are not equal, the situation will remain as it is. On the contrary, Syria has always, and even during the Syrian presence, tried to build this relationship of equals. However, a large portion of Lebanese politicians do not believe in the strength of their country, or perhaps they do not see it, or they are unconcerned. This is the problem with some politicians in Lebanon; the problem doesn’t involve Syria’s beliefs. They want Syria to secure the independence of Lebanon, but do they truly believe in the independence of Lebanon. They’re the same ones who talk about a relationship of equals; are they equals in their relationship with France, or America? They take orders from ambassadors, or some officials, and the issue of "equals" is a lie, a mask. It was said that the Syrian President would not visit Lebanon, so that he would not have to salute the Lebanese flag, since he didn’t recognize Lebanon. I made a visit to Lebanon in 2002, to the airport, and saluted the flag. Now they’re on the topic of the embassy. But they represent the same group. We aren’t the losers if we have an embassy in Lebanon; however, perhaps they are saying, "I hope an embassy isn’t established."
Al-Hayat: Can we infer that the relationship with France is still very bad?
President al-Assad: Specifically with President (Jacques) Chirac. But relations are good with French institutions. This is the strange thing, that the relationship with France as a whole has not been affected.
Al-Hayat: Do the personal and the political merge when it comes to President Chirac’s position?
President al-Assad: This is what we hear all the time from President Chirac’s foreign and Arab friends.
Al-Hayat: Thus, Syrian-French relations await the end of President Chirac’s mandate?
President al-Assad: This matter doesn’t concern us; it’s an internal French matter. We told the French quite clearly, in more than one letter, that we cannot allow our relationship with any state to pass through a third state. Thus, if France wants to build a good relationship with Syria, it must build it with Syria, and not through Lebanon. This is the essence of the problem. As for the personal, or other aspects, I’m not specifically aware of anything in this regard.