President al-Assad’s interview with CBS News: Legitimacy comes from the inside, Syrians are more united- Part 3
President Bashar al-Assad made an interview with the U.S. CBS News. Following is third and the last part the full text:
Question 61: No moderate militants in Syria? So the definition of a terrorist is what?
President Assad: Of terrorism? Whenever you hold a gun, and kill people, and destroy public buildings, destroy private properties, that’s terrorism.
Question 62: So, anyone who opposed your government in Syria, and used military tactics, was a terrorist.
President Assad: With military tactics, or without?
Question 63: Using weapons to-
President Assad: The word opposition, everywhere in the world, including your country, is a political opposition. Do you have military opposition in the United States? Would you accept it? You wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t. No-one accepts military opposition.
Question 64: It’s one thing to say to say there’s military opposition. It’s another thing to call them terrorists.
President Assad: Military opposition is terrorism. Whenever you hold a gun, a machinegun, and you try to destroy and kill and threaten, this is terrorism, by every definition in the world. It’s not my definition. Whenever you want to make opposition, it’s going to be political opposition, like your country, you have the same criteria, we don’t have different criteria from the one you have in the United States or in Europe or anywhere else.
Question 65: If there’s a negotiation, would you accept as part of the negotiation and share power in Syria with anyone who is in opposition to you now, whether they are moderates, whether they are terrorists, but if in fact they lay down their arms and say we want to be part of a future government, a transitional government, in Syria?
President Assad: Whenever they lay down their arms, they’re not terrorists anymore.
Question 66: Even ISIS?
President Assad: ISIS will not. This, how to say, virtual. For ISIS to lay down their arms, this is virtual, because their ideology is they want to fight and to be killed and to go to heaven, to go to paradise. That’s how we look at it. They won’t negotiate anyway. So, we don’t have to answer something which is virtual, not realistic. The realistic one is that many of the militants laid down their arms and are working with the government now. This is reality. I’m not talking about what is going to happen in the future. That is happening, and that is part of the reconciliations. Some people are interested in politics, they can take that track, and some people are interested only to going back to their normal lives and work any job, not being part of the politics. Of course we are open. Whenever there is political opposition, we are fully open to deal with them.
Question 67: As you know, Secretary Kerry has called you a brutal dictator. Secretary Kerry! Other people have said worse. Does that bother you? Is that an accurate description of you?
President Assad: You want the rest of the world to know the reality, of course you won’t be happy to hear something that is a far cry from the reality, but at the end, this kind of description to an official wouldn’t be really important unless the Syrian citizens said this word. And because the Syrian people still support you, it’s a dictator, killing your people, and have the support of the people. It’s a contradiction.
Question 68: It’s interesting to have that conversation, but with respect, it is said that there was a time, several years ago, in which you were in a very difficult place, and some people thought the government might fall, even suggestions that you were planning to leave, and then the Iranians came in, and Hezbollah came in, and the tide began to turn. Is that a fair appraisal of the circumstances? Because if it’s true, it means that the Syrian people were not supporting you, because before foreign forces came in, you were about to lose.
President Assad: First of all, the Iranians never came in during the conflict. Never.
Question 69: General Suleimani was here, in Damascus.
President Assad: He’s always here, for decades. This kind of cooperation, like you say, no we have-
Question 70: He was here for the same reason that he is in Iraq right now. He was advising Hezbollah and-
President Assad: You have cooperation, as America, with different countries. You send experts, you have a kind of cooperation. That’s different from sending troops. Is that correct? Different, sending troops is different from having cooperation on higher levels.
Question 71: It doesn’t matter where they came from. If they are under your command, so to speak, I mean if you are giving direction to Hezbollah… but the central point I want to-
President Assad: No, what you mentioned, I mean your question implied that Iranians are fighting in Syria. That’s completely incorrect. Not correct, definitely. If they come here, we would announce, we don’t have a problem. We have the right to bring allies to fight with us. At the same time, we announced that Hezbollah is in Syria, we didn’t deny this. So, why deny Iran and not deny Hezbollah? We don’t.
Question 72: But my argument with you, and you are an artful debater, my argument is, and I’m asking questions, I have no position here, my question is: if the Syrian people supported you, why when the so-called Arab spring came, were you almost about to lose power until outside forces came in. It’s self evident that the Syrian people were not supporting you if you were facing that kind of-
President Assad: If you have a real Arab spring today, neither Iran nor Russia, not even Hezbollah can help you. The difference in the situation that you mentioned earlier, between the beginning of the crisis and today, is that we are more gaining support by the Syrian people, because they discovered the truth. At the very beginning, many people weren’t… I mean the vision wasn’t clear for many Syrians. Now, it’s very clear, and we have support even from many people in the opposition against terrorism. So, the main factor, why the situation has changed, is not Iran or Hezbollah; it’s the Syrian incubator, the Syrian population. That was the difference. Hezbollah is not a big army. It cannot play that role all over Syria.
Question 73: But the game on the ground didn’t change until they came here.
President Assad: No, that’s not true.
Question 74: So you didn’t need them?
President Assad: No, we needed them, of course. That’s alliance, we need them. They play an important part. But what has changed, the balance that you mentioned, when you talk about 23 millions in Syria, when you have Arab spring, let’s say a few thousand fighters from Hezbollah wouldn’t change the balance. What has changed the balance is the incubator that moved toward the government. That is what has happened.
Question 75: Here is what is also clear, that even though Secretary Kerry has suggested you are part of the problem or part of the solution, and they want you to be part of the solution, but they have not yet changed their mind that you have to agree to share power or give up power. They don’t want you in power.
President Assad: First of all, they didn’t try to make negotiations or dialogue with us, so they don’t know what we want.
Question 76: That’s why I’m here. See, that’s why I’m here, to have you tell me what you want, that’s exactly why I’m here. Tell me what you want.
President Assad: What we want is whatever the Syrian people want. As I said, as a president, to stay or not to stay-
Question 77: But the Syrian people supporting you, you have a relationship with them, you know what they want. So what do you want?
President Assad: Now, we want, in such circumstances, we always ask for two things: first of all, dialogue. Second, sharing, sharing of power, by any political entity that represents Syrian people, not a political entity that has been forged in the United States, the CIA, or in France, or in Qatar. By patriotic Syrian opposition that represents the Syrians. And we have it, we have in Syria-
Question 78: So what do you mean by sharing power?
President Assad: I mean if you want to go back to constitutional procedures, they should go to elections, they can share in the parliament, in the local administration, in the government, in everything, and to be part of the decision in the government, like any country.
Question 79: You, and your father, have held power in Syria, for how many years? The combination, of you and your father, how many years?
President Assad: Is it a calculation of years, or public support? There’s a big difference. Years, it doesn’t matter how many years, the question is-
Question 80: Well, it does matter.
President Assad: No, what matters for us is do the Syrians support these two presidents? Doesn’t matter if they are father and son. We don’t say George W. Bush is the son of George Bush. It’s different. He’s president, I’m president, he had support from that generation, I have support from these generations now. That is the question. It doesn’t matter how many… it’s not the family rule, as you want to imply.
Question 81: It’s not?
President Assad: No, it’s not. It’s not a family rule. It has nothing to do with me being president. When he died, I was nothing. I was just in the army. I wasn’t, let’s say, a high-ranking official.
Question 82: You know your family much better than I do, but conventional wisdom is after your older brother died, your father wanted you to come back, because he wanted you to be able to assume power when he left.
President Assad: Actually, the reality is the opposite; he wanted me to stay as a doctor and go back to London and I refused. That’s the reality.
Question 83: He didn’t want you to come back?
President Assad: No, never. He didn’t want me to be part of the politics.
Question 84: Then why did you become part of the political process when you were a doctor?
President Assad: We live in a political family, we live in a political environment, and in the army, I’m a doctor in the army, and the army during the history of Syria has made the history and the reality in this country.
Question 85: Because he was such a significant political figure in the Middle East, would he have done things differently, if he was President of Syria today?
President Assad: That’s a virtual question, I cannot answer on his behalf. That’s a virtual question, nobody knows.
Question 86: You think he would agree with what you have done?
President Assad: Definitely. He wouldn’t allow the terrorists to take over, wouldn’t obey or submit to external intervention. And he would have defended his country like he did during the Muslim Brotherhood. The same happened on a smaller scale in the eighties, late seventies, early eighties, when the Muslim Brotherhood started assassinating, killing, and destroying, and burning, and he fought them. That is his mission as a president. That’s what you have to do. To leave terrorists killing your people, that’s your mission?
Question 87: Is it a fair appraisal of what you believe, that everything must be done, and the ends justify the means to stop terrorism in Syria, as you define it?
President Assad: No, it’s not the ends justify the means, this is a Machiavellian principle. You should have values and principles. You have constitutions, and you have interests. So according to your values, you have to defend your people, the population, the Syrian citizens, you have to defend your country. For your interests, you have to get rid of terrorists. So, that’s how we think, not only in a Machiavellian way.
Question 88: Tell us what the Russians want. They are a strong ally of you. What do they want?
President Assad: Definitely, they want to have balance in the world. It’s not only about Syria; it’s a small country. It’s not about having huge interests in Syria, they could have it anywhere else. So, it’s about the future of the world. They want to be a great power that has its own say in the future of the world.
Question 89: And what do they want for Syria?
President Assad: Stability. They want stability and a political solution.
Question 90: And what does Iran want.
President Assad: The same. Syria and Iran and Russia see eye-to-eye regarding this conflict.
Question 91: And what is your obligation to both of them?
President Assad: What do you mean, obligation?
Question 92: What you owe them.
President Assad: Yes, I know, but they didn’t ask for anything. Nothing at all. That’s why I said they don’t do that for Syria; they do it for the region and for the world, because stability is very important for them, because if you have conflicts here, it will burn somebody else there. If you want to talk about terrorism, terrorism has no boundaries. It sees no borders, no political borders. It’s much more difficult to take any procedure to face it due to the internet, which is difficult to control. When you have ideology, it could cross everywhere, it could reach Russia, it could Turkey, anywhere. So, they have the same interest. Russia, and Iran, and many other countries that support Syria, not because they support the president, not because they support the government, but because they want to have stability in the region.
Question 93: Let me present an alternative argument which the Untied States may very well believe, that they support you because they had a longstanding relationship. They support you because they want access to Lebanon. They support you because it’s part of the larger conflict between Sunni and Shi’a.
President Assad: You mean the Iranians or the Russians?
Question 94: The Iranians, and because they’ve supported you militarily and financially.
President Assad: No. The way the Iranians look at the Shi’a-Sunni issue or conflict, is that this is the most detrimental thing that could happen to Iran.
Question 95: To Iran? This conflict is the most detrimental thing?
President Assad: Anything related to Sunni-Shi’a conflict is detrimental to Iran. That’s their point of view, and that’s how we see it. We agree with them. So, actually they are going the other way. They want always to have reconciliation, unification between the Muslims, because that’s very good for Iran. They don’t want to be part… they don’t look at the issue in Syria as a part. They know that Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis, they want to instigate this conflict, in order to bring more of the Muslims to their side.
Question 96: As you know, there are many people who look at the Middle East today beyond Israel, and say within the Islamic world, it’s all about the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and choose your sides.
President Assad: That’s what the Israelis want to promote.
Question 97: No, some analysts look at the Middle East today and say, it is a competition between Iran on the one hand, Shi’a nation, Iraq, Shi’a, you here, Sunni majority, and Saudi Arabia. These two are mortal enemies, fighting for influence in the Middle East.
President Assad: That’s not precise for one reason, because it looks like Iran wants to attack the Sunni and Saudi Arabia wants to attack the Shi’a. It actually started with Saudi Arabia after the revolution in Iran in 79. So, it didn’t start from Iran. Iran never interfered in any other nation’s internal issues, including Syria. We have good relations with them, they never tried to interfere. Actually, it’s Saudi propaganda. I mean the whole issue of Sunni-Shi’a conflict is a Saudi initiative and propaganda. It’s reality, but because of the Saudis, not because of the Iranians.
Question 98: But in Syria, they are on opposite sides, Saudi Arabia and Iran are on different sides.
President Assad: That’s what Saudi Arabia wants to promote, and that’s what ISIS wants to promote, and that’s what al-Nusra wants to promote. In their political discourse, they always mention the sectarian issues.
Question 99: I’m now talking about how you see, here, the region and what is happening now. One, is the rise of ISIS here, the rise of ISIS and affiliated groups in Iraq. When you look at Iraq, Iranians are supporting Shi’a militia in Iraq, and they’ve been a very effective fighting force. The United States is engaged in airstrikes. They just had an airstrike yesterday in Tekrit which the Iranian militias have captured, correct.
President Assad: Not everything is correct. It’s not only Shi’a militia who are fighting. Many others joined, so it’s a mixture now.
Question 100: What’s the possibility of Iranian-American cooperation?
President Assad: Regarding fighting ISIS?
Question 101: Yes.
President Assad: I don’t think anyone trusts or believes that the American administration wants to really fight this kind of terrorism, because, I mean if you look at the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the whole 60 countries launch much less airstrikes than only the Syrian Army does on the daily, much less, so they’re not serious. Second, they only attack the northern part of Iraq. I mean, they attack the terrorists in the northern part of Iraq, not the rest of Iraq. Why did they join now? They want to get part of the cake, if there’s a victory against the terrorists, just to say that we fought terrorists and we defeated ISIS? Where were they during the last few months? They suddenly wanted to attack?
Question 102: So what do you think Iran wants in Iraq?
President Assad: They want to get rid of the terrorists, definitely, and to have stability.
Question 103: How long do you think that will take?
President Assad: Nobody has any idea, because you know, you have support from the outside, you have the support of the petrodollar, of ISIS, and many extremists in Iraq, and in Syria. So, how long that support will continue, we cannot tell.
Question 104: When you look at the future, and you look at the battle ahead, what the end result to Syria? How much of this can Syria take? How much of the conflict that is here today can the Syrian government withstand? How much, the Syrian country, the civilian loss? Will there be anything left in Syria?
President Assad: Of course, Syria is still here. It’s not the first kind of crisis that we’ve been facing here in history.
Question 105: But nothing like this.
President Assad: No, during the history, you have many similar crises. Damascus and Aleppo have been destroyed many times, but, I mean, it’s about the population. The Syrian population are determined to survive and to protect their country, and to rebuild it. How much do we tolerate? That is about the potent power that every population has, and the Syrian people proved that they have strong potential in that regard. Anyway, we don’t have any other option. What option do we have? Whether we suffer, whether we pay a high price or a lesser price, what options do we have but to defend our country, but to fight terrorism. We don’t have any other option.
Question 106: I asked the question because many asked it; what’s the cost to Syria, what it’s going through, and how to put the pieces together? Whenever there is finally, an end this, how will you put the pieces back together, and who will put the pieces back together?
President Assad: There’s a misconception in the West that what’s happening in Syria is a civil war. This is where you can ask that question. What is happening in Syria is not a civil war. When you have civil war, you should have, how to say, clear lines separated between different sects or ethnicities or different components. That’s not what we have. What we have are terrorist-infiltrated areas, and people are suffering from the fighting and from the terrorism of those terrorists. So, you don’t have division in the society now. You don’t have the sectarian issue now. Actually, you’d be surprised if I tell you that the sectarian situation in Syria today is better than the sectarian situation, let’s say, before the crisis. People are more unified now regarding the conflict, regarding the unity of the sects, religions, and so on. So, we cannot talk about how can you rebuild, let’s say, the society. The society is suffering from the humanitarian aspect of the problem, but it’s not divided anymore, and that’s very important, and that’s why we’re assured, that, I mean, even this conflict, which is a very bad conflict, as you say, every cloud must have a silver lining, and this is the silver lining in this crisis, that the population is more unified now. So we don’t have a problem as long as the society is unified and homogenous, regardless of some dark part of this society, ideological corners in our society that support the Wahhabis, support ISIS, and support the extremists, but this is not the general situation in our society.
Question 107: Why do you think that they, people in the West, question your legitimacy?
President Assad: This is intervention in Syrian matters. I don’t care about to be frank, I never care about it as long as I have the public support of the Syrian people, that’s my legitimacy. Legitimacy comes from the inside. But why? I will tell you why, because the West is used to have puppets, not independent leaders or officials in any other country, and that’s the problem with Putin. They demonize Putin because he can say no, and he wants to be independent, and because the West, and especially the United States, don’t accept partners. They even accept followers. Even Europe is not a partner with the United States. Best to be very frank with you. So, this is their problem with Syria. They need somebody to keeping saying yes, yes, and a puppet, a marionette, and so on, somebody they can control by remote control.
Question 108: There are those who argue that you feel now that you’re militarily stronger, that the advent of Hezbollah and Iranian advisors and American airstrikes and coalition airstrikes, that you feel militarily stronger, and therefore you’re less willing to negotiate.
President Assad: Any war can deplete the strongest power, even the United States. When you go to war, you will be depleted in every sense of the world, and we are a small country, we’ll be depleted more than a great country. So, you cannot say that you are militarily powerful, this is again the reality, but you can say that you are politically powerful, because when you win the hearts and minds of the people, more support from the population, this is where you become more powerful. So, what we achieved militarily, not because we are stronger militarily; because we have more support.
Question 109: And how much do you believe you may have some opportunity to win the minds and hearts of the Syrian people because they fear ISIS more than anybody?
President Assad: We cannot ignore this reason.
Question 110: Then ISIS has changed the circumstances?
President Assad: We cannot ignore that factor, we cannot ignore it. We don’t say no, this is a factor, but there are other factors. When you’re transparent with the citizens, with the people, when you’re patriotic, you work for their interests, they will support you even if they disagree with you politically. So, we don’t have support now from the traditional supporters. We don’t have support because they don’t oppose us. We have opposition who oppose our government in many aspects; economy, politics, political systems, and so on. But they know that we are working for this country, and when you have a war, it’s time for unity, not time for division for recriminations and so on. That’s why I said we can have more support, and we already had it recently.
Question 111: What circumstances would cause you to give up power?
President Assad: When I don’t have the public support, when I don’t represent the Syrian interests and values.
Question 112: And how do you determine that?
President Assad: I have direct contact with the people.
Question 113: So, you determine whether they support you?
President Assad: No, I don’t determine; I sense, I feel, I’m in contact with them, I’m a human. How can a human make a direct relation with the population? I mean, the war was a very important “lab” for this support. I mean, if they don’t support me, they could go and support the other side. They didn’t. Why? And that’s very clear, that’s very concrete.
Question 114: Some have argued to me that the majority of Syrians support neither the government nor ISIS.
President Assad: Some that don’t support either? If you don’t, I mean this is like saying that ISIS is like the government. I don’t think that this is realistic. Even people who oppose the government, they oppose ISIS, that’s how we look at it.
Question 115: That’s the question, isn’t it? Even those who oppose the government oppose ISIS, and the question is, how do you bring those two together, and what are you prepared to do, and what are they prepared to do, and how will you get those people that have a vested interest here, like the Russians and the Iranians and the Americans, to-
President Assad: Because very simply, they cannot put the government and ISIS on the same level, so it’s not difficult for them to choose. They didn’t choose… I mean, not to support the government doesn’t to support ISIS. It means automatically they’re going to be with the government against ISIS, but not with the government in other issues. It’s opposition, I mean, you have points of view, but as I said, it’s not time for division. Now, you support the government. When you get rid of ISIS, then you oppose the government in your own way, you use political means. But you cannot compare a government with the terrorists.
Question 116: Which raises the question: can you destroy ISIS without coming together with a united plan, a common purpose?
President Assad: On the local level, you are correct. You cannot destroy terrorists, not only ISIS, you have al-Nusra Front, which is as dangerous as ISIS. You cannot destroy them unless you are unified as a society. But, again, ISIS now is not the Syrian case. ISIS is in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. So, it’s not enough to be unified on the local level; it’s on the regional level and on the international level, something we don’t have yet. That’s why defeating terrorism is going very difficult because of that situation.
Question 117: Something we don’t have yet. So, that’s the question: you don’t have it yet, and how do you get it? Because that’s the future.
President Assad: You are talking about more than one party. You are talking about the international parties, first of all the United States, regional parties, first of all Turkey which is our neighbor and plays a very negative role, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the local parties. We would like to see this cohesion in fighting terrorism, but how can we convince them? We tried, maybe not directly, because we don’t have any direct channels with them, but that’s how it should be. If they could see the reality and the future in clearer vision, they would make dialogue with every country including Syria, not because they support the Syrian President or the Syrian Army, we don’t need their support internally; it’s about only fighting terrorism. You need to make dialogue. You cannot kill them and defeat them from the air. That’s a foregone conclusions.
Question 118: That’s true in Iraq or here, you can’t do it from the air.
President Assad: Anywhere, no you cannot.
Question 119: Do you want to see another conference, like the Geneva conference that failed?
President Assad: Yes, that’s the aim of Moscow conference. The next one.
Question 120: That’s it?
President Assad: Yes.
Question 121: And what might happen there?
President Assad: that depends on different parties. I mean, I cannot talk on behalf of every party. For us as Syria, you should have principles, to agree about, let’s say, some principles like unification of Syria, denouncing terrorism, something like this, and then-
Question 122: Sharing power?
President Assad: Sharing power, that’s in the constitution anyway. I mean, sharing power is about how much grassroots you have, how much of the Syrians you represent. You don’t come and share power just because you want to share power. You should have public support.
Question 123: You have to be a forced to share power.
President Assad: Exactly, exactly, you have to represent them. So, maybe if we reach a conclusion and we reach agreement in Moscow, it could be as preparation to go to Geneva 3, for example, but it’s still early to tell.
Question 124: I came here after Secretary Kerry made his remarks. My impression once I got here is that when you heard those remarks, you were optimistic. The State Department backed a little bit, and said we still think there needs to be a new government, but you were optimistic after you heard that. You believe there is a way for your government and the American government to cooperate and coordinate?
President Assad: That’s not the main point. I mean, regarding that statement. I think the main point, we could have a feeling, and we hope that we are right, that the American administration started to abandon this policy of isolation, which is very harmful to them and to us, because if you isolate a country, you isolate yourself as the United States from being influential and effective in the course of events, unless you are talking about the negative influence, like making the embargo that could kill the people slowly, or launching a war and supporting terrorists that could kill them in a faster way. So, our impression, let’s say, we are optimistic, more optimistic. I wouldn’t exaggerate. That at least when they’re thinking about dialogue, doesn’t matter what kind of dialogue, and what the content of the dialogue is, and even doesn’t matter what their real intentions are, but the word “dialogue” is something we haven’t heard from the United States on the global level for a long time.
Question 125: But you just did, from the Secretary of State: we need to negotiate. That’s dialogue.
President Assad: Exactly, that’s what I said. I mean, that’s why I said it’s positive. That’s why I said we’re more optimistic. I mean, when they abandon this policy of isolation, things should be better. I mean, when you start dialogue, things will be better.
Question 126: Why don’t you reach out to Secretary Kerry and say, let’s talk.
President Assad: Are they ready to talk? We are always open. We never closed our doors. They should be ready for the talks, they should be ready for the negotiations. We didn’t make the embargo on the United States. We didn’t attack the American population. We didn’t support terrorists who did anything to the United States. Actually, the United States did. We always wanted to have good relations with the United States. We never thought in the other direction. It’s a great power. Nobody, not a wise person would think of having bad relations with the United States.
Question 127: But can you have a good relationship with a country that thinks you shouldn’t be in power?
President Assad: No, that’s not going to be part of the dialogue as I mentioned earlier. This is not their business. We have Syrian citizens who can decide this, no-one else. Whether they want to talk about it or not, this is not something we are going to discuss with anyone.
Question 128: Mr. President, thank you.
President Assad: Thank you.