Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to Italian television, but it was not broadcast as Damascus wanted. So, SANA seems to have put the whole interview online. They also ran it in English. The following included comments in bold about the text. In parts of the Assad replies that are of interest I have used bold and italics. I’ve used the text the regime printed, which is not to give approval of it, but to analyze it word-by-word, because it reflects the regime’s future operations and agenda.
The interview was supposed to be broadcast on the 2nd of December and Italian television declined to broadcast it for reasons the regime finds “incomprehensible.”
Syria’s SANA claims “President al-Assad made it clear that Europe was the main player in creating chaos in Syria and the refugee problem in it because Its direct support to terrorism along with the United States of America, Turkey and other countries…Syria has confirmed that it did not use it, and that the recent leaks about the report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prove that everything that Syria said over the past few years was true and that it was correct and they were wrong.”
Comment: From the start it appears the regime wants to push the chemical weapons issue, claiming that evidence of attacks was “fabricated and faked” and used by the US and the “West” to “create more chaos.”
The first question:
Mr. President, thank you for receiving us. Can you tell us what is the situation in Syria now? What is the situation on the ground, and what is happening in the country?
President Assad: If we wanted to talk about Syrian society, the situation is much better, as we have learned many lessons from this war. I believe that Syria’s future is promising, because it is natural for us to get out of this war more powerful. Regarding the situation on the ground, the Syrian army has been making progress over the past few years, liberating many areas from terrorists and Idlib remains, where the Turkish-backed (Al-Nusra Front) is located. There is also the northern part of Syria, where the Turks invaded our lands last month. As for the political situation, it can be said that it has become more complicated because there are more players involved in the Syrian conflict in order to prolong it and turn it into a war of attrition.
Comment: It’s all about Idlib, where the regime and Russia have been constantly bombing since Turkey’s October offensive, probably with a quiet acceptance of Turkey that this was a trade-off for Tel Abyad. Reports say Russia has bombed hospitals.
Second question: When you talk about liberation, we know that there is a military vision in that regard, but what about the situation now for people who decided to return to society? Where has the reconciliation process reached? Is it a success or not?
President Assad: In fact, the approach we adopted when we wanted to create a positive climate we called reconciliation, but in order to enable people to live together, and to enable those who lived outside government-controlled areas to return to institutions and the rule of law, granted us amnesty to all, and those would give up their weapons and commit to By laws. The situation is not complicated on this issue. You may have the opportunity to visit any area, and you will see that life is back to normal. The problem was not that “people were fighting each other”; nor was it – as the Western novel attempts to portray – that the Syrians were fighting each other, or was it a “civil war” as they called it, this is misleading. The reality of the situation is that the terrorists controlled this area and applied their bases. And when those terrorists no longer exist, people will return to their normal lives and live with one another.
Comment: The regime narrative is that it wasn’t a civil war, just “terrorists” and government and that amnesty was granted to those living outside government control since 2011. In fact some of those who tried to get amnesty have been disappeared or tortured. Syrian refugees in Jordan told me this earlier this year.
The third question: Do you have fears that this type of ideology, which has been applied and has become a basis for people’s daily lives for many years, may still – in one way or another – exist in society and return to emergence sooner or later?
President Assad: This is one of the main challenges we face. What you presented is absolutely correct. We have two problems. These areas outside the control of the government were controlled by two things: chaos, due to the absence of law, and therefore people, especially young generations, do not know anything about the state, law, and institutions. The second thing, which is deeply rooted in the minds, is the ideology … the dark ideology … the Wahhabi ideology, if it (ISIS) or (Nusra) or (Ahrar al-Sham), or any kind of these Islamic extremist terrorist ideologies. Now, we started to deal with this reality, because when a region is liberated, this problem should be solved, otherwise what is the meaning of liberation? The first part of the solution is religious, because this ideology is a religious ideology, and the Syrian clergy, or to transfer the religious establishment in Syria, are making a great effort in this area, and they have succeeded in helping these people understand the true religion, not the religion that you taught them (front Al-Nusra) or (ISIS) or other factions.
Comment: The regime understands this is a long term struggle, because some lived under rebel control from 2011 to 2018. The regime portrays the rebels as primarily religious extremists and mentions Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS. The total numbers under ISIS from 2014 to 2017 were several million while under varying other groups was another several million. Others have lived in Jordan or Turkey, including another five million. So for the regime it knows these people have had access to years of information that is against the regime and will undermine it. The war for hearts and minds then will be long. It may be unsurmountable which means the regime doesn’t want the refugees back.
The fourth question: So, the clergy and mosques were essentially part of this reconciliation process?
President Assad: This is the most important part. The second part is related to schools. In schools, there are teachers and education, and there is the national curriculum. And this curriculum is very important to change the opinions of these young generations. Third, there is culture, the role of art, intellectuals, etc. In some areas it is still difficult to play that role, so it was easier for us to start with religion, then with schools.
Comment: So the regime understands this is a major educational hurdle that will take a generation to socially engineer people.
The fifth question: Mr. President, let’s return to politics for a moment. You mentioned Turkey, right? Russia has been your best ally over these years, and this is not a secret, but Russia is bargaining with Turkey over some areas that are part of Syria. How do you evaluate this?
President Assad: To understand the Russian role, we must understand the Russian principles. The Russians consider international law, and the international system on which it is based, to be in Russia’s and the world’s interests. Therefore, support for Syria is, for them, support for international law. This is a point. The second point is that their action against terrorists is in the interest of the Russian people and in the interest of the entire world. Consequently, their “bargaining” with Turkey does not mean that they support the Turkish invasion, but they wanted to play a role to persuade the Turks that they had to leave Syria. They do not support the Turks. They do not say: “This is a good reality, and we accept it, and Syria must accept it.” They are not saying that.
However, due to the negative American role and the negative Western role with regard to Turkey and the Kurds, the Russians intervened in order to achieve a balance with that role. To make the situation, I am not saying better now, but rather worse, if we are accurate.
So this is their role in the meantime. In the future, their position is very clear: Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity contradict the Turkish invasion, and this is clearly evident.
Comment: Assad knows that the recent Turkish invasion is a major turning point and that Ankara is not going to leave Syria. As I detailed in a piece on Turkey’s changing language, Damascus now knows it has seen its land partitioned. Assad is saying “we are dealing with the best of a bad series of choices.” He also knows Russia is selling Turkey the S-400 and has oil deals. He is saying “we have a weak hand here.” He hopes Russia will stick with him more.
Sixth question: So, you say that the Russians can bargain, but Syria will not bargain with Turkey. I mean, the relationship is still quite tense?
President Assad: Not even the Russians did not compromise on sovereignty. They deal with reality. There is a bad reality, and therefore you have to engage in it, and I do not say to compromise, because this is not a final solution. It may be a compromise regarding a short-term situation, but in the long or medium term, Turkey should leave. There is no doubt about that.
Comment: Russia could have prevented Turkey from invading Afrin, it has opened the airspace to Turkey and conducts joint patrols with it. The regime talks “sovereignty” and “international law” because it knows it has lost a bit on the ground to Turkey.
The seventh question: In the long run, is there a plan for discussions between you and Mr. Erdogan?
President Assad: I will not be proud if one day I have to; rather, I will feel disgusted when dealing with this kind of opportunistic Islamist. They are not Muslims, but Islamists, and this is another term, a political term. But I always say that my job is not related to my feelings, nor to be happy or unhappy with what I do, my job is related to Syrian interests. Hence, wherever those interests are, I will turn.
Comment: It appears Assad is ready to meet Ankara, but Ankara will not meet Assad. Once again the regime appears to show it is in a tough spot now after the October 9 invasion. Bombing Idlib is a consolation prize.
The eighth question: At the moment, when Europe looks to Syria, regardless of its considerations about the country, there are two main issues: the first concerns refugees, the second concerns jihadists or foreign fighters and their return to Europe. How do you view these European concerns?
President Assad: First, we have to start with a simple question: Who created this problem? Why do you have refugees in Europe? It is a simple question. Because terrorism is backed by Europe, and of course the United States, Turkey and others; but Europe has been the main player in creating this chaos in Syria. Hence as you sow, you reap.
Comment: He basically says that Europe gets what it “deserves” through having refugees. Oddly the Syrian regime tends to have friends on the far-left and far-right in Europe, it has sometimes catered to far-right anti-immigrant views. Here it does so again.
The ninth question: Why do you say: Europe was the main player?
President Assad: Because the European Union has openly supported terrorists in Syria from the first day, or to say the first week, from the start. They held responsibility to the Syrian government; some regimes – such as the French system – sent them weapons. They said that, one of their officials, I think it was Foreign Minister Fabius who said “We are sending weapons.” They sent weapons and created this mess. So a large number of people – millions of people could no longer live in Syria and found it difficult, and therefore they had to get out.
Comment: Assad blames Europe, more than the US now, for his problems. Is this just because he is speaking to an Italian interviewer or because he sees the US withdrawing and he knows that Turkey’s invasion was backed by NATO and that Turkey is using the refugee threat to get EU backing to stay in northern Syria and re-settle refugees. Assad seems to now understand that the Trump administration doesn’t care about his atrocities or about Syria, and that Europe is the address.
The tenth question: At the moment, there is turmoil in the region, and there is chaos. One of Syria’s other allies is Iran, and the situation there is progressing toward complexity. Does this have any impact on the situation in Syria?
President Assad: Certainly, whenever there is chaos, it will reflect negatively on everyone, and it will have side effects and consequences, especially when there is external interference. If it is spontaneous … If you are talking about demonstrations and people calling for reform or improvement of the economic situation, or any other rights, then this is positive. But when it is about sabotaging property, destroying, killing and interfering by external forces, this can only be negative, it can only be bad and dangerous for everyone in this region.
The eleventh question: Are you worried about what is happening in Lebanon, which is your closest neighbor?
President Assad:The same. Of course, Lebanon will affect Syria more than any other country because it is our immediate neighbor. But again, if what is happening spontaneously and is related to reform and disposal of the sectarian political system, it will be good for Lebanon. And again, it depends on the awareness of the Lebanese people not to allow anyone from abroad to try to exploit spontaneous movement or demonstrations in Lebanon.
Comment: This is an odd comment because if the system is reformed then Assad’s Hezbollah allies will lose out.
Twelfth question: Let us return to what is happening in Syria. In June, Pope Francis sent you a letter asking you to take care of and respect people, especially in Idlib, where the situation is still very tense due to the fighting there, even when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. Did you repeat it, and what was your response?
President Assad: The Pope’s message centered on his concern about civilians in Syria. And I had the impression that the image is incomplete with the Vatican, and this is to be expected, given that the novel in the West revolves around this “bad government” that kills “a good people.” As you can see and hear in the same media, every shot fired by the Syrian army and every bomb it fires only kills civilians and falls only on hospitals! It does not kill terrorists but rather selects those civilians! This is not true.
Consequently, I replied with a letter explaining to the Pope located in Syria, and that we are the first and most concerned with the lives of civilians, because you cannot liberate a region while people are against you, you cannot talk about liberation while civilians or society are against you. The most important pivotal part of liberating a region militarily is to gain popular support in that region in general. This has been evident over the past nine years.
Comment: Assad reads western media accounts, he wants to challenge the hospital an chemical weapon accusations.
Thirteenth question: But has that call made you, in a way, realize the importance of protecting civilians and protecting people in your country?
President Assad: No, this is what we think about every day, not only from the perspective of ethics, principles and values, but also from the perspective of interests. As I mentioned earlier, without this support, without popular support, nothing can be achieved, progress cannot be achieved politically, militarily, economically or in any way. We would not have been able to survive this war for nine years without popular support, just as you cannot have popular support while killing civilians. It is an intuitive equation that no one can refute. So I said that regardless of this message, this is our obsession.
But the Vatican is a state, and we believe that the role of any country, if it has concerns about these civilians, is to return to the main reason. The main reason is Western support for terrorists, and the sanctions imposed on the Syrian people that have made the situation much worse, which is another reason why refugees are now in Europe. How is your desire consistent with the absence of refugees consistent with you while creating all the conditions or atmospheres that say to them: “Get out of Syria and go somewhere else.” Of course, they will go to Europe.
So this country, or any country, must address the causes, and we hope that the Vatican will play that role within Europe and the world, to persuade many countries to stop interfering in the Syrian issue, and to stop violating international law. That is enough. All we want is everyone’s compliance with international law. Then civilians will be safe, the system will return, and everything will be fine. Nothing but that.
Fourteenth question: Mr. President, you have been accused several times of using chemical weapons, and this was a tool for making many decisions, a major point, and a red line resulting in many decisions. Just a year or more ago, the Douma accident, which was considered another red line, happened. After that, there were bombings, and it could have been worse, but something stopped. These days, through WikiLeaks, it turns out that something was wrong with the report. So, no one can yet say what happened, but something may have gone wrong in drafting the report on what happened, what do you think?
President Assad: We always say, since the beginning of this narration related to chemical weapons, that we did not use them, we cannot use them, and it is impossible to use them in our situation, for several reasons, let us convey logistical reasons.
Intervention: Give me one reason!
President Assad: One very simple reason is that when we are in progress, why do we use chemical weapons ?! We are moving forward, so why do we need to use it ?! We are in a very good position, so why use it ?! Especially in 2018, this is a reason .. The second reason, there is concrete evidence that refutes this account: When you use chemical weapons, you are using a weapon of mass destruction, that is, you are talking about thousands of dead, or at least hundreds. This has never happened. There are only those videos depicting plays about fabricated chemical weapons attacks, and in the report that I mentioned, according to recent leaks, there is a mismatch between what we saw in the videos and what they saw as technologists and experts.
And the amount of chlorine they’re talking about, and by the way, chlorine is not a weapon of mass destruction. This is first. Second, the amount that they found is the same amount that you can have in your home, because this material – as you know – is present in many homes, and you can use it perhaps in cleaning, or for any other purpose. Exactly the same amount. What the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons did was fabricate and falsify the report just because the Americans wanted them to do so.
So, fortunately, this report proved that everything we have been saying over the past few years, since 2013, has been true. We were right, and they were wrong. This is the evidence, the concrete evidence on this issue.
So, once again, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is proving biased, politicized and immoral. Those organizations that should work in parallel with the United Nations to create more stability in the rest of the world are used as arms for America and the West to create more chaos.
Comment: Assad appears to claim that the accusations of chemical weapons use in 2017 and 2018 were false but admits the regime used chlorine. Basically he is saying “we didn’t use the really serious chemical weapons we had before 2013.” It’s hard not to read this as part obfuscation and part admission. Also he is very sensitive to this accusation.
The fifteenth question: Mr. President, after nine years of war, you talk about the mistakes of others. I would like you to talk about your mistakes, if there are any mistakes. Was there anything you could have done differently, and what lesson did you learn that could help your country?
President Assad: Of course, when you talk about doing anything, you must find mistakes. This is human nature. But when you talk about political practice, say, there are two things: there are major strategies or decisions, and there is tactic, or transfer implementation. Thus, our strategic or major decisions have been to stand up to terrorism, to reconcile and to stand against external interference in our affairs.
Even today, after nine years, we are still adopting the same policy, and we are even more adhering to it. If we had thought it was wrong, we would have changed it. In fact, we don’t think there was anything wrong with it. We did our job, and we implemented the constitution to protect the people.
Now, if we talk about errors in implementation, then of course there are many of them. But I think if you want to talk about the mistakes related to this war, we should not talk about the decisions taken during it, because the war – in part of it – is the result of things that happened before it ..
There are two things we encountered during this war: The first is extremism. Extremism originated in this region in the late 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s, especially Wahhabi ideology. If you wanted to talk about mistakes in dealing with this issue, yes, I would say that we were very lenient with something very dangerous. This is a major mistake we made for decades. And here I am talking about different governments, including ours before this war.
The second thing is when there are people who are ready to revolt against public order, destroy public property, sabotage, etc., and work against their country, and they are ready to work with foreign powers and foreign intelligence services, and they request external military intervention against their country .. There is another question: How did these people find us? If you ask me how, then I will tell you that before the war, we had about 50,000 outlaws who were not arrested by the police, for example. For those outlaws, their natural enemy is the government, because they do not want to go to prison.
Comment: In classic Soviet fashion he has blamed some “sabateurs” for being agains the government, a kind of amalgam of “reactionaries” and “outlaws.” But He also blames foreign intelligence. Interesting, he does not use the key word “CIA” or blame Israel. That was the usual case in the past. Maybe Assad thinks secretly he can get some room with the current US Trump administration if he is nice? He’s no worse than North Korea, he probably thinks.
He focuses on a long-term issue of “extremism” and references his father’s war against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. This is the regime’s own view of its long-term struggle.
Sixteenth question: What about the economic situation as well? Because part of what happened – I do not know whether it was a large or small part – was the discontent of the population and the problems that they suffered in certain areas where the economy was not successful. Is this a lesson from what you have learned?
President Assad: This may be a factor, but it is certainly not a major factor, because some are talking about four years of drought that have pushed people to leave their lands in rural areas and go to cities … so that could be a problem, but it is not the main problem. Some also talk about liberal politics. We did not have a liberal policy, we are still socialists, and we still have a very large public sector in government. You cannot talk about liberal politics while you have a large public sector. And we were achieving good growth.
Again, of course, while we implement our policy, mistakes are made. How can equal opportunities be created between people … between rural areas and cities? When you open the economy in some way, cities will benefit more, and this will lead to more migration from rural areas to cities. These may be factors, and they may have some role, but they are not the issue, because in rural areas, where there is a greater degree of poverty, Qatari money played a more effective role than it played in cities, and this is normal, as it can pay them a week’s wages on What they can do in half an hour. This is very good for them.
Comment: Assad still believes the regime’s socialist nationalism is relevant. He flirted with a more open economy after 2000 though. It’s unclear what the “Qatari money” refers to. Is that money for rebels or money for those who went to the Gulf to work?
Question seventeen: We’re almost done, but I have two questions that I’d like to ask you. The first question is about reconstruction, which will be very expensive. How do you imagine that you would be able to bear the costs of reconstruction, and who would be your allies in the reconstruction?
President Assad: We don’t have much problem with that. And speaking of that Syria has no money. No, because the Syrians actually have a lot of money. The Syrians who work all over the world have a lot of money, and they wanted to come and build their country, because when you talk about building the country, it is not about giving people money, but about achieving benefit. It is a business. There are many, and not only Syrians, who wanted to do business in Syria. So, when talking about the source of funding for reconstruction, the sources are there, but the problem is with the imposed sanctions that prevent businessmen or companies from coming and working in Syria. Nevertheless, we and some foreign companies have begun to find ways to circumvent these sanctions, and we have begun planning. The process will be slow, but without the sanctions we would have had no problem funding.
Comment: He doesn’t appeal for help with reconstruction, no mention of Russia, Iran or China. This is interesting. Basically he thinks Syria will do this on its own?
Eighteenth question: I would like to conclude with a very personal question. Mr. President, do you feel yourself a survivor?
President Assad: If you want to talk about a national war like this, where almost every city has been damaged by terrorism, external bombing, or things like that, then you can consider that all Syrians are survivors. But then again I think that this is the human nature, that one seeks survival.
Intervention: What about you personally?
President Assad: I am part of these Syrians, and I cannot be separated from them, and I have the same feelings. Once again, it is not about being a strong survivor, if you do not have this climate, this community, this incubator – so to speak – to survive, then you cannot survive. It is a group process, and not limited to one person. It is not an individual act.
Comment: Well, Assad doesn’t talk about himself much.
Thank you very much, Mr. President.
THE IRANIAN TEXT
Iran’s Tasnim also ran the interview, but their text is only 1,000 of the 3,000 words. The full text is here.
The full text of the Syrian President’s interview with the Italian network RAI NEWS 24 is as follows:
Reporter: Mr. President. Thank you very much for interviewing us. First of all, please talk about the reality and the nature of the current situation in Syria; what is the situation in the field?
Bashar al-Assad: “If we want to talk about Syrian society, things are much better now than before. We have learned many lessons from this war. I believe that the future of Syria is promising, of course, as we come out of this more powerful war. As for the field situation, the Syrian army has made significant progress over the past years, clearing some areas of terrorists and still remaining Idylls. There is the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra – backed by Turks. As for northern Syria, Turkey invaded our territory last month. As for the political situation, the situation has become more complicated due to the large number of actors involved in the Syrian conflict in order to extend the life of this crisis and turn it into a war of attrition.
Reporter: At the time of your talk about liberation, we know that there is a military perspective, but what about those who decide to return to society? Where has the reconciliation process come from? Was it successful or not?
Bashar al-Assad: In fact, when we created a positive atmosphere, we called it the approach that we took. But with the goal of bringing people back together and allowing those living in areas under control to return to institutions and the rule of law. We have issued a general pardon. They will surrender their weapons and commit to law enforcement. Things are not complicated. You may be given the opportunity to visit these areas and you will find that life is back to normal and the situation is normal. The problem with the people they were fighting with was not – and the situation was not – as the Western media portrayed – it was called “misleading public opinion”. But the truth is that the terrorists controlled those areas and enforced their own laws. But when these terrorists are not, people will certainly resume their normal lives and live side by side.
Reporter: Mr. President, let’s go back to politics. You mentioned Turkey, right? Russia has been your best ally in the last few years; But how do you assess this, with Russia coming to terms with Turkey over some areas that are part of Syria?
Bashar al-Assad: To understand the role of Russia we must understand the principles of Russia. The Russians know the international law and the international system they rely on for the benefit of Russia and the whole world. Therefore, their support for Syria is in accordance with international law. This is a point. The second point is that they are working against the terrorists and for the benefit of the Russian people and the whole world. So their “reconciliation” with Turkey does not mean that they support the Turkish invasion. They wanted to play a role and persuade the Turks to leave Syria. The Russians do not support the Turks. They do not say: this is a good situation and we accept this situation. Syria should accept it. They don’t say that. But because of the negative role of the US and the West over Turkey and the Kurds, the Russians have stepped in to balance that role until the situation – I am not saying it gets better but not worse – improves. That’s their role now. But in the future their position is very clear: Syria’s sovereignty and territorial health conflict with the US invasion. This is very clear.
Reporter: You’re saying that the Russians might be looking for compromise. But Syria does not compromise with Turkey. Do I mean relationships are still generally stressful?
Bashar al-Assad: The Russians have not even compromised on sovereignty. They are dealing with reality. Now the reality is bad so you have to get into it. I am not saying that compromise because this is not the final solution, maybe compromise on short-term situation but for long or medium term, Turkey has to leave Syria. There is no doubt about it.
Reporter: For a long time, are there any plans to hold talks between you and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Bashar al-Assad: If I had to do it someday, I would not be proud, but rather disgusted with such an opportunity to engage with such opportunistic Islamists. They are not Muslims but Islamists. This is another term, a political one, but I always say that my job has nothing to do with feelings about being happy or unhappy about what I’m doing. My job is related to the interests of Syria. So wherever these interests are, I go for it.
Reporter: There are two key issues at stake now when Europe looks at Syria, regardless of its political ambitions: the one related to the displaced and the second by the jihadists or foreign fighters on the web. How do you view European concerns?
Bashar al-Assad: First of all we have to start with one simple question: Who caused the current problem? Why do you have refugees in Europe? This is a simple question because terrorism has been supported by Europe, of course, by the US, Turkey and others, but Europe has been the main cause of this chaos in Syria. Man reaps what he sows.
Reporter: Why do you say Europe was the main cause?
Bashar al-Assad: The European Union has been openly supporting terrorists in Syria since the first week or so from the first week. But from the beginning, the Syrian government was responsible for the work and some countries, including France, sent weapons to them. One official in France had said this. I think French (former) Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had said, “We’re sending weapons to them.” The Europeans sent weapons to Syria and created chaos. So many people, millions more, could not live in Syria and were forced to leave the country.
Reporter: You are concerned about the developments in Lebanon and is it your nearest neighbor?
Bashar al-Assad: Lebanon will certainly affect Syria more than any other country because it is our direct neighbor. But if the recent developments are spontaneous and related to reform and the abolition of the sectarian political system in this country, this is useful for Lebanon. Once again, this is related to the will of the Lebanese people and should not be allowed to interfere with foreign parties or to exploit the spontaneous demonstrations in Lebanon.