The Red Line and the Rat Line



Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels


In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.​*Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.

Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.

For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)

Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.

The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.

A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’

In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.

The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’

In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.

By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.

At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’

The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.

The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’

Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.

The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.

Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)

*

The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)

In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)

The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.

The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’

Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.

By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’

There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.

An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.


The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)

But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.

The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.

Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.

*

The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’

A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’

As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’

The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’

Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.


Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’

4 April 2014
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Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014
pages 21-24 | 5870 words



President Bashar Assad's interview w Al-Watan Newspaper


Following is the full text of the interview:

Question: Mr. President, can we start with Aleppo? The army is advancing quickly in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo. But there are American and international efforts, and there are also negotiations with Russia in order to stop fighting completely in these areas. Has the decision to liberate Aleppo completely been taken?

President Assad: The decision to liberate the whole of Syria, including Aleppo, was taken right at the beginning. We have never thought of leaving any area unliberated. But the developments of military actions during the last year led to these military results which we have seen recently, i.e. liberating the eastern part of Aleppo recently doesn’t come in a political framework, but rather in the context of normal military operations.



Question: Why this international panic and concern for the militants in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, although most of them belong to al-Nusra, which is listed as a terrorist organization?

President Assad: There are a number of reasons. First, after the failure of the battle, or battles, for Damascus in the first years of the crisis, and later the failure of the battles for Homs, which was supposed to be a stronghold for the fake or supposed revolution, they moved to Aleppo as their last hope. The advantage that Aleppo enjoys for the terrorists and their supporters is that it is close to Turkey, and consequently logistic supplies to Aleppo are much easier from all aspects. So, they concentrated on Aleppo during the last two years, and that’s why liberating Aleppo from the terrorists deals a blow to the whole foundation of the project, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. That way the terrorists and the countries supporting them are deprived of any real cards.

Question: This leads us to the question about the statement: “the winner in the battle of Aleppo wins the war in Syria.” This has been promoted often by the Turks and the Americans. Is that statement true?

President Assad: From a military perspective, let’s say it is true, because Damascus and Aleppo are the two most important cities, so the party which wins Damascus or Aleppo militarily makes a significant political and military achievement since they are politically and economically important. That is in the strategic sense. But since the Turkish project is based on Aleppo, this gives it special importance. We all know today that all Western and regional states rely on Turkey in implementing their incendiary and destructive project in Syria and in supporting the terrorists. Because Turkey has thrown all its weight, and Erdogan laid all his bets on Aleppo, the failure of their battle in Aleppo means a total transformation of the course of the war throughout Syria, and consequently the collapse of the outside project, be it regional or Western. For that reason, it is true that the battle of Aleppo will be a gain, but to be realistic, it doesn’t mean the end of the war in Syria. It is a significant landmark towards the end of the battle, but the war in Syria will not end until terrorism is eliminated. Terrorists are there in other areas; so even if we finish in Aleppo, we will carry on with the war against them.

Question: Mr. President, in this context, there are questions raised even by the people of Aleppo. Why all these recurrent truces have been implemented in Aleppo? Throughout last year, there was one truce after another. Was it for the army to avoid a big battle, or to open the space for Russia to conduct negotiations with the United States and Turkey?

President Assad: If we look at the truces in general, we have always gone along with the principle of the truce for a number of reasons. First, a truce allows civilians to get out of the areas occupied by terrorists, allows for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and gives the terrorists an opportunity to rethink their position if they want to settle their legal status with the state, or if they want to leave the area they occupy as often happens. A truce provides an opportunity to have less destruction. At the same time, and for us from a military perspective, our top priority is the safety and security of our fighters. So, on all these counts, a truce has advantages, and that’s why we have gone along with them. Reconciliations are another result of such truces. There is no doubt that they have achieved results on the ground. But if we take Aleppo in particular, and because Aleppo was recently the base of the hostile project, other powers have called for truces not for the reasons I listed above. They called for them for other reasons. We all know that they want to give terrorists an opportunity to breathe, strengthen their positions, and send logistic supplies whether by smuggling or under the cover of humanitarian aid and the like. All this was done to enable the terrorists to regain positions they have lost or to attack the army and complete the plans they have been charged with. That’s why truces have failed. At the same time, and from a political perspective, truces were useful for us in order to prove to all those who still have doubts that these states are lying and they want this truce not for the sake of the people, and not because they want to put an end to bloodshed, but because they want one thing only, which is strengthening the positions of the terrorists. That’s why we have gone along with these truces taking into account the real intentions of these states. And whenever they carried out any act which undermines the principle of the truce, we used to consider them null and void and carry on with military action. That’s the reason for the repeated truces in general, but particularly so in Aleppo.

Question: So, are there no more truces today?

President Assad: Practically, there are no truces. They still insist on calling for a truce, particularly the Americans, because their proxies, the terrorists, are in a difficult position. That’s why crying, wailing, and begging for a truce constitute their only political discourse now, in addition, of course, to talking about humanitarian aspects.

Question: Mr. President, allow me to move from Aleppo to international relations. So far, the West is portraying the Syrian-Russian relation as one of subordination, that Syria is a Russian satellite, and that Damascus no longer has an independent decision, for all decisions are made in Moscow. How do you respond to such claims?

President Assad: First, let’s say that the West thinks this way because it lives such a condition. You know that all Western states are now satellites of one master, America. The American maestro moves his baton and they all move in one direction, politically, militarily, or even in the media. What coincidence that all Western media across Europe and America have one narrative! What democracy and freedom! So, they live this condition of subordination. Their relationship with other states in our region is one of subordination. It is well known that most states in this region are satellites of Western states and axes, one way or another. That’s why they use this logic. As for Russia, we have dealt with many Russians recently, in addition to our knowledge of them for decades, through the relationship with the Soviet Union and then with Russia. In the different circumstances this relationship has undergone – circumstances that have brought radical changes – not once the Russians tried to impose anything on us, even when there were differences, including Syria’s role in Lebanon. Despite our differences with the Soviet Union at that time, they did not try to impose certain decisions on us although we used to depend greatly on them, particularly when it comes to weapons.

Today, the same applies to the Russian Federation. It is not merely a style adopted by the President or the Russian leadership. It is a form of popular culture for them. When we meet on all levels, and in all sectors, they have one culture based on morality. They have self-respect and they respect sovereignty. That’s why the Russian policy today is based on principles, because these principles constitute an existing popular and cultural condition.

When they say that they emphasize Security Council resolutions, state sovereignty, respect for others, respect for the will of the Syrian people, or any other people, they reflect their culture and apply it on a daily and continuous manner. That’s why I can confirm that they haven’t carried out one simple or complicated, major or important step, regardless of the labels, except in consultation with Syria. Of course, most of these consultations are not public. And because the game today is an international one between the West which wants to undermine and embarrass Russia, on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other, Russia announces a certain step or agreement. This might appear to some people as if Russia makes the decisions, but reality is different and our relationship is based on self-respect. Of course, now they are fighting, with us, a real battle against terrorism, and in this case we are partners, and we cannot say that decisions are purely Syrian, and that the Russians have nothing to do with them. This is illogical. There are consultations on a daily basis, and there is agreement and disagreement, but ultimately we agree on one decision and take one decision.

Question: Mr. President, on this subject, there are those who say that Syria will pay a price for Russian assistance or Russian intervention, for instance. People talk about this. Do the Russians ask for anything in return for their intervention in Syria?

President Assad: Absolutely not. They haven’t asked for anything. On the contrary, we want to strengthen these ties and have called, before the crisis, and after the crisis, for Russian investment in Syria. In return, they haven’t tried to take advantage of this condition at all. As we said, principles are essential for their policies. At the same time, the war on terrorism is not fought only for Syria. It is a war for Russia, for Europe, the region, and the whole world. The Russians are aware of this on the political and popular levels. That’s why if we talk about principles, they are based on principles, and if we talk about interests, there are also common interests between the two countries. They have said this publicly. “We are defending the Russian people by preventing terrorism from reaching Russia.” They said this on more than one occasion.

Question: Concerning Turkey, we heard during a certain period of time of a Turkish delegation, or delegations, and talk of a shift in Turkish position. Afterwards, relations deteriorated further, and Turkey made an incursion which you described as an invasion. Would things come to a military confrontation with Syria if the interference continued?



President Assad: As long as the Turkish policy is run by an abnormal and psychologically-disturbed person like Erdogan, we have to expect all possibilities. When you deal with a psychologically-disturbed person, there is no place for logic. Logic says that there is no interest for Syria and Turkey except in good relations. The popular sentiment in Turkey, as in Syria, is still in that direction. But ultimately, when there is Turkish interference, Syria has the right to defend its territories. This is self-evident, and we will of course do it. Now there are military priorities, but in principle we certainly have the right. But we hope that rational people in Turkey will be able, meanwhile, to convince Erdogan to stop his foolishness and recklessness concerning Syria. In that case we can avoid such a confrontation, and we must act in order to prevent it.

Question: After Russian-Turkish tension relations went back to normal. In a previous interview, you described the Russian-Turkish relations as useful for Syria, but Russia has to remind Turkey daily not to interfere in Syrian affairs, particularly after the fiery statements made by Erdogan about Syria and about you personally. Do you think that the relation between Russia and Turkey is still useful to Syria? Do you rely on Russia to persuade Erdogan?

President Assad: We still have hope, despite the fact that you often know you will not reach any result, particularly through my personal knowledge of Erdogan. He is not a political person, but rather an ideological person in the perverted religious sense. Such persons are obstinate and cannot read reality correctly. Events during the past five years have proven this, but even when there’s no hope that Erdogan will change, you should maintain a glimmer of hope that someone might be able to change him, whether from inside or outside Turkey, particularly Russia, for Russia is in the end a superpower and has borders with Turkey, and Turkey has interests with Russia. There is no doubt that when relations between the two countries were upset, that weakened Erdogan inside Turkey and proved the failure of his policy. I believe that there is domestic pressure on Erdogan to correct his relationship with Russia. And Russia will certainly take advantage of this in order to convince him to abandon terrorism.

Question: US President-elect Donald Trump said in his statements that he is not interested in removing the Syrian President from power and interfering in Syrian affairs, and that his only concern is fighting ISIS. Do you believe that there is a possibility to cooperate with the American army in fighting ISIS, particularly that the September 9 agreement between the Russians and the Americans was sabotaged by the Pentagon because it believes that Jabhat al-Nusra is the only force that can be used to threaten the Syrian regime?

President Assad: In principle, we have spoken about the necessity of forming an alliance against terrorism since 1985. And we continuously announce that Syria is ready to cooperate with any party seeking seriously to fight terrorism. This is a general principle which applies to the United States and all countries. But realistically, can the United States move in that direction? Talking about the issue which you mentioned, it shows that the Pentagon plays a role contrary to that of the White House, and the White House follows a policy different from that of the State Department.

The fact is that the American state has appeared during the past year in a state similar to that of the armed factions in Syria, when they fight for spoils. This is not new, but has appeared more clearly. That’s why you see statements in the morning which differ from their policies in the evening, and their policies in the evening differ from what they do in implementation of that policy the next day, and so on. There are contradictory statements among the different lobbies and administrations. You feel that there is no specific policy, but different conflicts. This is the truth. Can the new President control these things? This question is difficult to answer. Can he face the media, which is part of the lying and deceptive propaganda? Was electing Trump a reaction on the part of the American people against the existing political institution? There are many complicated questions. If Trump was able to implement what he announced during his election campaign, that he will fight terrorism, and that his priority is ISIS, and was able to bring all American forces, movements, and institutions in that direction, what he said will be realistic. But we have to wait and see what will happen in the United States.

Question: Mr. President, following up on the election of Trump. A few days ago, Francois Fillon made a surprise and won the vote of the French right. And now he is the strongest candidate for the Elysee in Paris. Both want dialogue with Damascus. Is it a matter of Syria being lucky, or what’s happening is the natural course of change in public opinion, and might be the result of political mistakes made in the region?

President Assad: I will not say it’s a matter of luck, and at the same time I don’t say that one can control everything. And everything you don’t control might be put in the context of luck. But here we ask a question: are these changes in Europe and in the West a result of what’s happening in Syria or a result of internal factors in these countries? There are undoubtedly internal factors which might have to do with people losing hope in relation to many issues related to domestic policies, but at the same time one of the most important domestic political factors now, and in the political dialogue in Europe, is the question of terrorism which started to hit Europe, and the question of immigration. These factors are directly related to what’s happening in Syria. This doesn’t mean that we have sent immigrants or terrorists, but we have been warning of this happening, particularly in relation to terrorism. We used to say that it will strike in Europe, and they used to say that the Syrian President is threatening. I wasn’t threatening, I was warning.

These things contributed to resentment, to exposing Western deceit in the media, and on the level of policies, institutions, and lobbies related to it. They contributed to the creation of public pressure in the Western states for change. We cannot say it’s a matter of luck. Moreover, without the resilience of the Syrian state, and the resilience of the Syrian people before the state, it would have proven to the Western citizens that the false narrative is the truth. But the resilience of Syria and the Syrian people in general made this narrative lose its value and content, and consequently led to the results we see. This, of course, in addition to other internal factors in those states and which have nothing to do with Syria.

Question: Is Syria prepared and open up to France in case it proposed a dialogue with Damascus?

President Assad: Of course, when the European policy changes we have no problem. We really want relations with all countries of the world including the West, despite our knowledge of its hypocrisy. When our relations were good between 2008 and 2011, there was hypocrisy. The West has not change. It is always biased and hypocritical. But we are talking about interests, and stats’ interests require relations.

Question: On Lebanon, many people considered that General Michel Aoun’s becoming president is a victory for Syria and the axis of resistance. Do you personally believe that General Aoun’s becoming president is a victory for Syria?



President Assad: First of all, I believe that the Lebanese people’s ability to elect a president is a victory for Lebanon. And their electing a person who enjoys consensus is also a victory for Lebanon, and the fact that this person is a patriotic Lebanese is also a victory for Lebanon. When the president is a patriotic person acting in the best interest of the Lebanese people, Lebanon becomes stronger, and when Lebanon is stronger, Syria will be comfortable and stronger. More importantly, when that person is somebody like General Michel Aoun who knowns the dangers of terrorism around Lebanon on the Lebanese, this will be a victory for both Lebanon and Syria, particularly when this president knows that Lebanon cannot distance itself from the fires raging around it, and adopts a policy of no-policy or what was called the policy distancing oneself.

Question: Has he been invited to Damascus?

President Assad: No, not yet. Now they are busy forming the government.

Question: Mr. President, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stated few days ago, that Egypt supports the Syrian army in facing terrorism. Director of the National Security Bureau, General Ali Mamlouk, visited Cairo. Are there new developments in the relations with Egypt?

President Assad: There is no doubt that Syrian-Egyptian relations deteriorated in the past few years, particularly during the war on Syria, to record low when the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi was in power. But even at that time relations were not severed, not because Morsi did not want to, or the Brotherhood did not want to, but because the security and military establishment did want relations to be severed. A consulate remained functioning with the minimum number of staff.

After the demise of the Brotherhood rule in Egypt, relations started to improve, and they are still improving. General Mamlouk’s visit and the recent statements of the Egyptian officials, and mainly by President el-Sisi, are an indicator of this relationship, however, it has not reached the required level because it remains until now limited to the security level. On the other hand, there are consulates and embassies, but there are no ambassadors, or foreign visits, or political consultation. Practically, we cannot say that this relation is normal now. There are. Of course, no impediments on Syria’s part. We want this relation to be normal, and Egypt is an important country for us, and we hope that president el-Sisi’s statements will have a bearing on rising this relation to a higher level. At the same time, we know that pressure on Egypt has never stopped, whether from the West which wants it to play a marginal role in a certain direction, or from the pre-historic Gulf sheikdoms which want one of the oldest civilization of the world to be like them. That’s why I can say the relation is improving slowly. But prospects are still limited to the security framework.

Question: Are we waiting for a new step from Egypt?

President Assad: I wish you ask the Egyptian state about the obstacles. We cannot answer on their behalf. But we believe that the natural thing is to have full relations like any other state. It does not make sense that we have ambassadors and visits from different Arab and foreign states, and not have relations with Egypt on this level. For us, this does not make sense, particularly if you go to Egypt today and probe popular sentiments towards Syria, you will find them very warm, and even warmer than they were before the crisis. The same applies to the Syrian people of course.

Question: Mr. President, you talked about the Muslim Brotherhood. A question has been raised for a number of years now: how can we understand that Syria’s strong ally, Iran, is still engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood and has excellent relation with Erdogan, and at the same time it is Syria’s ally and fighting beside it? Do you consult with the Iranians on this issue?

President Assad: Of Course, and in detail. Iran is a state, and a state builds its policy on principles on the first instance but relations between states are not necessarily based solely on common principles. Certainly, there are no common principles between the Iranian state and the Muslim Brotherhood. But part of the role of the Iranian state in achieving stability in the region, is that it seeks to have relations in all directions, including with the Turkish state. Erdogan is affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood and his regime follows the same trend. Nevertheless, there is non-stop dialogue between Iran and Turkey. This does not mean that they have common principles and visions. But the positive aspect in this case is similar to the Russian-Turkish relation, i.e. trying to limit harm and damage. The same applies to the dialogue between Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an attempt to convince these groups perhaps to embrace political opposition and stay away from terrorism. Here we come back to the same point: we have no hope that they will change. They have been like this for eighty years, but we are not against any state or any power which tries to push this group away from terrorism, particularly that, in the nineteen eighties, there are groups which left the Brotherhood and abandoned violence. On the individual level, there are groups which came back to Syria and embraced the patriotic state, and lived and died in Syria. So, this is possible on the personal level, but hope remains limited.

Journalist: But Iran supports Hamas too, and Hamas played a role and participated in the war on Syria.

President Assad: We too used to support Hamas not because they were affiliated with the Brotherhood, but because they are part of the resistance. But ultimately, it was proven that a member of the Brotherhood will remain loyal to it in whatever position he was and in whatever mould he put himself in, whatever mask he wore. In essence, he remains a member of the Brotherhood, terrorist, and hypocrite.

Question: On northern Syria, you said in a previous interview that federalism is an issue that will be decided by the people, but on the ground, there are certain manifestations of federalism in the north, and the issue of Kurdish armed groups remains controversial. Sometimes they fight beside the Syrian Army, and sometimes against it. What is the real position of these groups and how do you see the scene developing in the north?

President Assad: These factions are diverse: some patriotic, some mercenary, and some seek separation and federalism. The scene is very diverse and complicated. We cannot take a clear position. It depends on the case. Priority is given now to dealing with terrorism: we say that we support every group fighting terrorism and terrorists. The question of federalism is quite different: it is related first to the constitution and second to the popular state in that region. The constitution doesn’t allow for it to happen, and amending the constitution needs a referendum, and the popular state is not amenable to that trend, even among the Kurds themselves. The largest section of the Kurds do not support this. They take advantage of the absence of the state in a number of areas in the north in order to create specific social structures, which take a political form, in order to manage people’s affairs, and they talk about federalism. These are temporary structures. But for us, dealing with federalism cannot happen except after we finish the problem of terrorism, then the people will decide. As far as we are concerned as a state, we accept whatever the Syrian people accepts, and I don’t think that the Syrian people accept federalism anywhere in Syria. That’s why I’m not concerned about this proposition.

Question: But aren’t you concerned about the future of Syria generally in light of emerging talk about sects and ethnicities? Even the UN Envoy started proposing sectarian solutions.

President Assad: You might find it strange that I was concerned about this before the war, not after. Maybe in the first year of the war, yes, because this was widespread in society and influenced people. But after one year and then two years, the picture became clear. I believe that today the social structure of Syrian society has become purer than it was before the war. Before the war, there were sectarian and ethnic impurities seeping deep into society. Now this society has become purer because things have become clearer, and now it distinguishes between religion and fanaticism, between religion and sectarianism. Differences became clear, and society realized that it is in its best interest that everyone accept everyone else and that everyone respect all the different religious, sectarian, ethnic parts of the spectrum in the Syrian society, because it’s the only way that Syria can exist. That’s why I believe that despite the brutality and the bad aspects of the war, it had advantages for the Syrian society in this respect. That’s why we shouldn’t worry. I tell you that if we are able to strike terrorism, this society will be much better than the Syrian society which we knew before the crisis.

Question: On delegations visiting Syria, there were security delegations visiting Syria, including French, German, and Belgian delegations. A few months ago, a Syrian official visited Italy. What is being discussed in these meetings? What do they want, and what does Syria want? We heard that Syria wants embassies to be reopened. What is the truth? Why do they come to Syria while they are in a state of hostility towards it?

President Assad: What happened in the West is that the political forces which stood against Syria, I mean the forces in power, of course, went too far in their lies. When it was proven that what we used to say was true and that they started to pay the price for the Syrian earthquake and the Arab earthquake in general, they couldn’t stand up and tell their people that we were wrong and that we need to build relations with Syria and change our positions. They started with the bottom line, which is sending their security officials to Syria in order to have security cooperation in order to protect their people, and at the same time that they support terrorists in Syria. We told them that this doesn’t make sense. We cannot help you in the security field while you are acting against us in the same area. At the same time, we cannot cooperate with you on security issues while you are acting against us on the political level to say the least. Of course, some states do not support terrorism directly. But the bottom line is that there shouldn’t be any cover for any institutional cooperation, which is political cooperation. We cannot cooperate with you in the security field while you are acting against us in the political field. Everything is a reflection of politics. We are not concerned with opening embassies. On the contrary. Their embassies are centers of espionage, as far as we are concerned in Syria. We are not at all interested in this. We are concerned with policies. If they change their policies, and we agreed with them in the field of policies, and we were assured that they do not act against the Syrian people, only then such talk might be possible. Of course, most of these security organizations had the same convictions, and some of them promised us to convey this picture and try to persuade politicians. But this is impossible, because when these politicians say the opposite of what they used to say years ago, they will be shown as liars before the constituents. That’s why they do not think of their people’s interests but think of their next elections. So, nothing happened, and there was no cooperation.

Journalist: Are these visits still going on?

President Assad: Yes, they are, from time to time, and from most of the countries which took a position against Syria.

Question: Mr. President, they have gone a long way in their positions. This is a justification they always use in order to say that it is difficult for them to make a U-turn, but everybody is looking a way back, so to speak. Would you facilitate this way back for them?

President Assad: This question was raised with a number of the Western and foreign delegations I received. I used to tell them: they want to save their face. We have no objection to that. They went up the tree and they want us to help them get down. That’s fine. But at least, every official can find a hundred justifications, like saying that he wants to protect his people from terrorism, and protecting his people makes him change policies, not because he was mistaken, but because circumstances changed. Had they wanted to do that, they would have had a hundred justifications. But the United States doesn’t allow them to do so.

They want to move steps forward, but American pressure pushes them back to square one every time. They need to be independent of America, and this is not possible now. Consequently, justifications are not enough, and our helping them is not enough. America is putting pressure on them and preventing many things from happening.

Question: Mr. President, towards the end of this international political file, before the war on Syria, we in Syria knew that we had one enemy, which is Israel, and all our efforts were directed towards fighting Israel. Today, after six years of war on Syria, is it possible officially to add new names to the list of Syria’s enemies?

President Assad: To be precise, the word “enemy” describes a country which occupies your land, not a country which followed a hostile policy. For instance, we cannot assume that France is an enemy, because I believe that the French people is changing now. They understand that the story is not true. Different popular and official delegations visit us and express very objective and moral positions. We cannot say that this state is an enemy. While Israel occupies Syrian land, and this is a different issue. The same applies to the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar took very hostile positions, and throughout history they were one of the reasons for Israel’s survival and supremacy in the region. But this doesn’t make the people in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or other states enemies. That’s why I say that officials in these states classify themselves as enemies, but that doesn’t mean that the state or the people are enemies. Israel alone remains the enemy.

Question: Mr. President, may I move to the Geneva process and to reconciliations? Can we say today that the political process is in a coma until the arrival of the new American administration?

President Assad: If we say that it is in a coma, this means that it was alive at one point. But it wasn’t. From the beginning, it wasn’t built on clear foundations. The political process is not a Syrian-Syrian dialogue in terms of its foundations. The Geneva communiqué was not a Syrian communiqué but an international one. It wasn’t based on fighting terrorism. On the contrary, it was clear to us that this process was only an instrument to enable terrorists to achieve what they couldn’t achieve in the field. It wasn’t based on negotiations between patriotic Syrians but between patriotic Syrians on the one hand and Syrians who are agents of foreign powers. All the above made the whole process stillborn from the beginning.

Question: Why did we participate then?

President Assad: We participated in order to give them no justification and in order to prove to all that the states which talk about a political solution – the West in particular – are not genuine. We know the game, and we participated in order to expose it, particularly to those who believed that it carried prospects for a solution, and also to some of the friendly states which used to suspect in the beginning that we have a desire for a military solution – according to the terminology used – and that as soon as we engage in this political process, the states which support terrorism will stop doing so. There were convictions of this kind. Our participation in this process, with all its different initiatives – and all of them were against the interests of the Syrian people – proved that this is incorrect.



Question: Let’s talk about the opposition for a while. You said they were agents working for other states. What opposition do you deem acceptable to sit on the table and with which you can reach political solutions?

President Assad: Not all of the opposition are agents. We were talking specifically about the opposition which was charged by those states to conduct dialogue with Syria. Those are the agents, and this is final for us, and I believe that the Syrian people know this. The opposition has a clear definition: first, it should be a political unarmed opposition, doesn’t support terrorism, with Syrian grassroots, if it has grassroots, doesn’t work for foreign agendas. Any opposition of this kind is acceptable to us. In this crisis, when we say there are sections of the opposition with which we need to communicate, this also depends on the weight of this opposition and its influence on the crisis. In other words, it’s a waste of time to sit with a member of the opposition simply because of his being so and discuss ways of putting an end to the crisis, while he has no influence. If we want to talk about a vision for a future Syria, we sit with all sections of the opposition and with all parts of the Syrian spectrum, not only the opposition. Political dialogue is not limited to a dialogue between the state and the opposition. There are groups in the middle, and there are different currents in the Syrian society which might necessarily be political or party currents. They also should take part in the process. So we talk to everyone depending on the subject.

Question: There are different platforms: the Moscow platform, the Damascus platform, the Cairo platform. Which of them do you find acceptable?

President Assad: We conduct dialogue with every platform that do not support terrorists and are not linked to other states. As to the result of the dialogue and how the dialogue proceeds, this depends on the capacities of these platforms and the ideas they have.

Question: Mr. President, there is a reconciliation process carried out by the Russians inside Syria, and the latest figure given by Hmeimim might exceed a thousand villages and towns which signed reconciliations with the Syrian state. Recently there were Daraya and al-Muadamiya, and the day before yesterday there was al-Kiswe and before it Qudsaya and al-Waer. All these reconciliations might be a better alternative to the Geneva dialogue, or is it a completely different process?

President Assad: True, it is a different process, and a real and practical solution, with negative and positive aspects, but the only available solution in parallel with striking the terrorists. It has proved its efficacy during the past two or three years, and started to accelerate. It is a solution that protected the civilians, protected the infrastructure as far as possible, or let’s say prevented more destruction of the infrastructure and offered the militants an opportunity to change course and embrace the state. What more do we want? The political solution is not about flashy statements and terminology. It is the reality which people live. If these reconciliations have improved reality for the population, it means they are good.

Question: There are many Syrians who criticize these reconciliations because not everyone approves of letting terrorists or killers leave certain areas and walk away as if nothing has happened.

President Assad: That’s true. When there is blood, there is intense polarization in communities. Moderation almost disappears. And I can say that the majority support these reconciliations. But let’s be clear: the strongest opponents of them are either the fighters on the frontlines who expose themselves to danger and death, the wounded, and the families of the martyrs, the wounded, and the fighters who send their sons to the frontlines, not those who theorize and chat in coffee shops and who want to fight terrorists from behind their computer screens. Consequently, I say that the Army and the Armed Forces, the fighters and their families feel comfortable toward these reconciliations because they do not only protect the country, but part of them protect their children.

Question: Some have accused the Syrian state that it seeks to effect a demographic change. They started to say this with the liberation of Daraya, and now it is repeated about Kefraya, al-Foua’a, al-Zabadani, and Madaya. How does the Syrian state look at these accusations? Do you take them seriously?

President Assad: This is an extension of the campaign which has started at the beginning of the war and the beginning of the sectarian campaign, when they failed to make a significant chasm in the society as was expected, they started to introduce other concepts, and demographic change comes in the same framework of sectarian conflict. Practically, if we want to look from a distance, and not as Syrian citizens, but as people looking at this issue from outside Syria, and think neutrally, we must identify the instruments used by the Syrian state to effect this demographic change.

These areas are on the masterplan and not part of random housing, and consequently they are owned by Syrian citizens. Had the Syrian state wanted to make demographic changes, it should expropriate these properties first in order to be able later to transfer ownership to other individuals. Without this mechanism, this cannot be implemented, and this has not happened, taking into account that the owners were displaced when the terrorists entered these areas, and not the army. When the army entered, only a small number left, most of them are family members of the terrorists. These families now live under state control, not under terrorists’ control.

On the other hand, what is the interest of the state to make this alleged demographic change. Stability in Syria is, first of all, social stability which is reflected as security and political stability. I’m talking about decades-old stability, which is an accumulation of centuries-old stability based on social relations and structures. Tampering with this social structure one way or another means destroying this stability.

Suppose that the state does not act in the best national interest and looks only at its own interest, it has no interest in undermining this stability. On the contrary, it acts to strengthen it because it ensures its continuity, as a state, a party, or a government, let alone if this state is principally seeking the national interest and the independence of national decision-making. In this case, it certainly needs to maintain the social fabric I have mentioned, and which has been built through centuries. That’s why we shouldn’t waste our time on such terms because they were ignored by the Syrian society even if they made an impact on small groups and for a few days.

Question: Mr. President, there is still a large number of people kidnapped or arrested by the terrorist and armed groups. These groups always promote the idea that the state doesn’t care about them while it cares more if the kidnapped is Iranian, for instance. What is the strategy followed by the state in order to secure the release of these Syrians? And is the state really not doing enough for them?

President Assad: Absolutely not. In every reconciliation, the question of the kidnapped was at the heart of the process. The evidence is in the recent reconciliation in Khan al-Sheeh, when the militants left the area and 25 kidnapped individuals were freed. This is essential and a priority for us because it is an important social and humanitarian issue that the state cannot ignore in any way or form because we can see its impact everywhere. That’s why we continuously search for the kidnapped and the missing: the missing about whom we know nothing, and the kidnapped whose place we have identified and we are looking for mechanisms or channels to communicate with the terrorists in order to free them. And we are very flexible on this issue based on our concern for bringing the kidnapped alive to their families.

Journalist: Throughout the period that individuals are kidnapped or missing, does the state continue to pay their salaries, particularly that many of them are the breadwinners of their families?

President Assad: Of course. Legally, their salaries have not been withheld. Of course the kidnapped are different from the missing. In the case of the kidnapped, we know that the person is still alive, but for the missing, we do not know if he is still alive or dead, and there are specific measures in relation to the missing, their salaries, and the period of time they continue to be considered alive.

Question: There is talk about holding a national forum and dialogue in Damascus and creating the Damascus platform in which members of the opposition from inside and outside Syria take part. Do you support creating this platform in Damascus?

President Assad: Any Syrian person who wants to come to Syria will be subject to Syrian law. To guarantee their safety is one thing, but to make them above the law is something else. Guaranteeing safety has a number of meanings: if what is meant is that the state will arrest somebody who has not violated the law, it is not true. The state will certainly not arrest such a person, and in that sense it guarantees his safety.

Journalist: Do they want some kind of immunity?

President Assad: There is no immunity from the law. Any person who has not violated the law shall not be arrested.

Question: But in principle, do you support the creation of such forum?

President Assad: Of course, we support dialogue as a principle. We support dialogue between the Syrians when it is a Syrian-Syrian dialogue between Syrians who do not belong to foreign agendas and do not support terrorism. We support any dialogue of that nature.

Journalist: Even in Damascus?

President Assad: Anywhere. We do not have a problem. There have been cases of dialogue in the past for members of the opposition, and we haven’t interfered in identifying who can come and who cannot, and we haven’t prevented inviting members of the opposition from outside Syria; but the majority did not want to come for different reasons.

Question: Mr. President, the economic file might be the most difficult. The first question is: how did the Syrian economy withstand? I remember that a number of Western embassies in Damascus sent reports to their governments saying that the Syrian economy is capable of withstanding for only six months. Now, we are on the threshold of the sixth year, and the Syrian economy is still standing. How did it manage to do so?

President Assad: As you said, it was expected to withstand for months, and if we wanted to be optimistic and talk through the logical and scientific economic rules, analyses then indicated that the economy would withstand for two to two-and-a-half years based on Syrian capabilities. But there are a number of factors which contributed to the resilience of the Syrian economy, realistic factors. First, the Syrians’ will to life. The Syrian people working in different professions in the public and private sectors were determined to carry on with the cycle of life albeit on the bare possible minimum by remaining in their professions and insuring their continuity. And here I want to stress more the importance of the private sector: small and medium enterprises, big factories, and some big investments.

Many people, including myself, find it strange that there were investments that started before the war, were inaugurated during the war, and some asked for investment money, started to work and completed that work during the war. There are even some investments which are not economic, but non-profit cultural investments, some of which were opened in Damascus and Aleppo. This confirms the strong will to life among the Syrian people.

The second point is that there are foundations on which the Syrian economy was built across decades, including the public sector which played an essential role in the resilience of the economy, despite the large gaps in it which we knew before the war.

Third, two or three years into the war, when the state realized that it might go on for long years, it moved towards untraditional solutions, i.e. there were solutions or measures which were not acceptable in the ordinary conditions before the war, that the state found it was useful to take untraditional measures to deal with an untraditional economy. This helped maintain the economic cycle also at the bottom line. But in addition to all these factors, there was the outside support which we received particularly from our Iranian and Russian friends, and which contributed to alleviating the burdens laid on this economy. These factors contributed to the resilience of the Syrian economy.

Journalist: Mr. President, are we in a state of war economy?

President Assad: Of course, we live in a state of war, and our economy is in a state of war in every sense of the word, starting with the sanctions. We cannot export, but we are exporting despite the will of some countries, in different ways. We are prevented from importing the necessary raw materials essential for our economy and for the different aspects of life in Syria. Nevertheless, we are able to bring them. Added to all that the importance of having foreign currency and other requirements.

Question: During the years of the war, Syrians have lost about 60 to 70 percent of their purchasing power as a result of inflation and the drop in the value of the Syrian Pound. That was one of the reasons which pushed many qualified individuals to immigrate looking for job opportunities as you said in a previous interview. Now, Mr. President, what can restore the health of the Syrian economy and bring back these qualified Syrians in order to work and build Syria again?

President Assad: The most important element of the economy in any state in the world after war is reconstruction, and this is a huge economy where hundreds of professions find opportunity. This reflects indirectly on all other professions. In other words, the country’s economy is launched initially on reconstruction, with Syrians’ money, starting with every person who wants to repair his house, factory, workshop, etc., this is not theoretical, it is happening now. The old city of Homs is one example, the Aleppo factories is another. We hear from different sections of the Syrian people that any area in which they used to live or work in is liberated, they return to it and rebuild it.

So, reconstruction has already started at the bottom line although the war is not over yet. There is also the reconstruction part which will be carried out by the state as in the areas behind Al-Razi hospital and others. All these areas will launch the reconstruction process. Then, particularly when security and safety are restored, a lot of Syrian money will come back to the country, and many of the Syrians who immigrated will return. And these people have different economic capabilities. The return of such people, with their qualifications, whether economically or professionally, will contribute to the restoration of the Syrian economy. At the same time, we as a state, are not starting from square one. We have the capacities, and the Syrian economy has never been based on foreigners. The Syrian economy is Syrian in every sense of the word. These capacities will return, and we will start the process. We have expertise, and we don’t need anything extra in order to rebuild our country. In addition, reconstruction is an economic sector which is very attractive to foreign investments, and friendly countries will certainly be at the forefront of the contributors in this field through their companies and loans. When we reach that stage, we will not have any problem in rebuilding the Syrian economy.

Question: Mr. President, reconstruction is very costly. Will the friendly countries alone be awarded the big contracts?

President Assad: I don’t think that the Syrian people accepts that companies from hostile countries take part in the reconstruction and make profit from the war they ignited. Logically, that’s not possible. But I believe that many of the countries which were hostile to us – and they are thinking about this now – will look for companies in friendly countries to act as fronts for them in reconstruction projects in Syria.

Question: There was corruption in Syria, like in all Arab countries, but it was limited. Today it has become public and people come in touch with it on daily basis. Does not the lack of serious accountability lead to the state we are in today, and have the corrupt been able, by being close to some officials here and there, to spread their corruption and the culture of corruption throughout Syria?

President Assad: In all circumstances the corrupt relay on being close to a corrupt official in order to be able to carry out corrupt acts. Corruption is like a germ, and germs exist in life and in human body. But the immunity of the person prevents them from causing illness. However, when the body’s immunity is weakened, the germ becomes stronger. Corruption is the same. When there is a war in which groups of corrupt Syrians, mercenaries and traitors take part, it weakens the immunity of the state and the society. Then this germ, corruption, becomes stronger and more widespread. But there is another factor related to immunity, which is morality. When corruption emerges and spreads this way, it means that it existed before the war but became stronger when the immunity of the society and the state became weaker. So, we have a problem which we need to address honestly with each other as Syrians. The problem has to do with education and morals, which is essential.

Now we come to the state. The state in a period of war is not like a state in a period of peace. It is not the state that controls all the details in the same way and in the same effectiveness, this is self-evident. But does this mean that corruption should continue without accountability? Absolutely not.
The law is the law, and its strict observance by the state remains there. The problem here is how to uncover corruption. The problem of corruption does not lie in the inability to account for it, but in the inability to detect it, particularly in these circumstances. The cases we have dealt with were through articles on the internet, or what is published on social media websites. Of course, a large part of the things which are written on such websites are untrue, but some was true and cases of corruption were addressed.

So, if we want to fight corruption in these difficult circumstances, we need to double our efforts on the level of the state and the society in order to detect it, because in the state of war, state institutions do not function everywhere and cannot follow up on every case. The priorities of the state are now different: first, fighting terrorism; second, providing the minimum of livelihood to the Syrians. These priorities are not the same in a state of peace. If we all cooperate in detecting cases of corruption, I believe that we can reign it in until we eliminate the terrorists and the Syrian state is restored to the way it was before and even stronger.

Question: Mr. President, following up on the question of corruption, there are the forces fighting on the ground in the war against terrorism. There are support forces and others who fought beside the Syrian Army in many areas, but there was a phenomenon that came to be called looting carried out by members of these forces and undermined the reputation of the whole army. How do you look at the participation of all these forces beside the Syrian Army, and to this experience with its negative and positive impacts?

President Assad: The experiment of the popular forces is not merely an option for the state. It is something that happens in all national wars in any state in the world. In most similar national wars, there were always national forces fighting beside the army. It is a natural, necessary, emotional, and impulsive state for many of the young people who want to defend their country in different ways. Sometimes it takes an institutional form, i.e. joining the Armed Forces, and sometimes it takes a non-institutional form like the popular forces which emerge during this emergency situation, which is the war.
This experiment has its advantages and disadvantages. Did it have advantages in our case? Of course, it had many advantages and achieved military accomplishments on the ground in support of the army, whether the army was operating in a certain area or not. They engaged in battles, exactly like the Armed Forces, and were effective in defending areas or liberating other areas from the terrorists.

Did it have disadvantages? Of course, but the disadvantages are always, like in the case of corruption, individual. In other words, a corrupt person is corrupt whether he is in an institution or acting on his own. The corruption we are talking about is not exactly linked to this case. We cannot generalize and say that this experiment was corrupt and that there was another uncorrupt experiment. Corruption during this war was in all cases linked to individuals. Most of the cases of corruption you are talking about used to happen in the frontlines in the battles. In the frontlines, there are only the fighters and those who supervise them, whether they are officers or in some cases civilians. Here, everything depends on the conscience of the individuals taking part. There are no monitors, no police, no oversight institutions. If this person was corrupt, he will cause damage to citizens, and if he was consciousness, he will do the opposite. In order to be transparent, in most cases it was the latter not vice versa. But it is natural to keep talking about cases of corruption, and that is self-evident. There were cases which have been detected despite the difficulty of the conditions of the battle. They were detected in the backlines when certain individuals were arrested because of looting in one form or another. There were cases when individuals were arrested, and I know all the details, but there are cases which have not been detected.
Nevertheless, there were daily instructions to officers and all those concerned to put an end to this state of affairs, and effective measures have been taken like the Armed Forces asking the community in the area to which the army will enter to send a delegation or representatives to enter with the army in order to identify the places which have been destroyed or ransacked by the terrorists, so that they do not accuse these forces falsely of abuse or looting. These measures have been implemented and were successful. There are other measures which were enacted in order to prevent any abuse, and there is accountability depending on the available capacities everywhere.

Question: Mr. President, on the question of Baath Party, at the beginning of the crisis or the war, there was an idea of developing party discourse in order to make it more coherent or closer to party members. At a certain time, there was a gap between the leadership and the grassroots. Today, Mr. President, and after the recent developments and the new constitution, where is this development in party discourse? Has it started or is it at the planning stage?

President Assad: It is true that we focused on this before the war since the party was the leader of the society and the state according to the constitution, and we engaged in developing the political discourse and other forms of discourse. During the war, we found it necessary to develop all forms of discourse in all sectors. Political discourse changed. You cannot have the same political discourse in the conditions of war similar to the discourse before the war. We have done this to a great extent. The educational discourse changed through developing the curricula, and that is what we are doing now, for school curricula are not in line with our condition now. Religious discourse has developed significantly, and we are still developing it. The media discourse has to be developed. But party discourse has its own particularity which is different from other forms of discourse, particularly in the Baath Party, since it is related to the party doctrine. What was meant by party discourse at that time, is what is called the theoretical principles which used to form the party doctrine. The theoretical principles which emerged decades earlier were not in line with the pre-war period, let alone now. We had prepared a comprehensive study and we were about to propose it to the party grassroots in order to be discussed before being approved. Then came the war. Now, this is no longer a priority. The priority now is practice. We haven’t forgotten about developing the theoretical principles, but the influence of this element is medium to long-term, while now the priority is party practice through selecting good officials, fighting corruption, communicating with different social sections inside and outside the party, in the cities, villages, and neighborhoods in order for the party to play its patriotic role in the daily issues lived by the population through the role of the party and its relations with Baathist officials in the state and selecting them properly, in addition to selecting the right representatives of the party in the People’s Assembly and other bodies like local administration, etc. and its role in the trade unions and popular organizations, since the party has a majority in them too. These issues relate to the population directly, and that’s why we gave them priority. There was also a change in the country leadership of the party a little more than three years ago, and that change was supposed to reflect one way or another on the aspects I mentioned, not necessarily to a great extent. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should not change the party discourse soon.

Question: On the media, we receive numerous complaints from people. People think that the Syrian media were unable to keep abreast with all developments. There was a quality shift, but it wasn’t as expected, and most people unfortunately watch non-Syrian TV stations. Why there can’t be in Syria a national media outlet that can be followed by all the Syrians?

President Assad: Nothing prevents this except our will and vision as Syrians. The evidence that we have the capacity is what we achieved during the first stages of the war when there was a great deal of distortion internationally, regionally, and locally. Electronic media played an important role at that time despite the fact that it wasn’t media in the traditional sense. It was through the social media. At the beginning of the crisis, at a time when everybody was trying to constrain these media in other countries, we opened them completely and achieved good results.

If we look at the Syrian media in general, and I can talk more about the official media since I am a state official, we need to take into account that this media cannot be like private media. Private media remain freer throughout the world. And it is natural for the official media to adopt the state’s views, as in all countries of the world. But I can say that there are objective factors which prevented the media from development like the sanctions imposed on them, preventing them from airing on satellites, etc. And there are non-objective factors related to the existing mentality. The media have a long development process, and the mentality existing in media institutions and concerned with developing the Syrian media discourse was not able to cope with this situation. They made a shift, but it wasn’t sufficient; for the war needed a larger shift. In addition, there was the bureaucratic nature to which the official media are linked and which allow sometimes many other non-media institutions to interfere in their work and consequently impede any development process. What we are doing now is cleaning up the media establishment. This is one of the tasks of the new government in the field of the media, particularly the Ministry of Information. It is a process of cleaning up media institutions of corruption and apathy. With these two conditions, the media cannot develop, for the media discourse cannot develop only with a mental condition, it needs an administrative condition. This is the first step, and the Ministry of Information has started these steps. Afterwards, we need to have an administrative conception of these institutions. Then developing the media discourse will be the natural result which we will see in the official media. For you, in the non-official media, you are free, and you have made significant strides and played an important role in this war.

Question: Mr. President, al-Watan celebrated a month ago its 10th anniversary. How do you evaluate the experience of private newspapers?

President Assad: They are necessary and obligatory in any state which wants to develop in the field of the media. You cannot develop using the public media alone. This is similar to the economy. The Syrian economy cannot be built only by the public sector. It needs the private and joint sectors. The same applies to the media. But evaluating the experience depends in part on our acceptance of such media as a society and a state. The introduction of private media after long decades and full generations who have known nothing but public media are not easy. Accepting new thought and the criticism it might carry is not something eastern and Arab societies are used to. Consequently, the private media face obstacles different from those faced by public media, but they remain obstacles nonetheless. However, I say that the experience of the private sector, and al-Watan in particular, is important and appropriate despite the obstacles. It can be built on to widen the scope of the private media sector in Syria.

Question: Mr. President, since the beginning of the war, and from day one, all those who visited you were inspired by a feeling of victory, even if it happened after a while. Even in the hardest of times, you were always optimistic. Where do you get this feeling and this confidence from while you are facing an aggression waged by the strongest states of the world?

President Assad: First of all, I am in touch with the Syrian society with all its sections. I have always done this for a long time, and before I became President and before and after the war. This communication hasn’t stopped. I got used to communicating with the people. This gives you an amazing idea about resilience, holding on to the homeland, the desire to live. It gives you a state of prevention so that you are not influenced by any state of frustration. That’s why I haven’t really reached, at any stage of the crisis, any single moment of frustration. I have the Syrian people, with all its sections, to thank for this. When we mention the economy and the desire to keep it moving, this is part of the resilience. When we talk about an employee who goes to work, a teacher going to school, and an electrician who falls martyr while carrying out his work, these are great instances of resilience. Secondly, I used to distinguish precisely since the first days between the fake campaign and reality. Many were probably unable to do so, and the virtual reality created by the foreign media and the proxy Arab media impacted many Syrians. I personally dealt with reality alone from the beginning and was not influenced by this condition.

Thirdly, when you are defending your country, you do not have any other choice: either victory or the end of the homeland. There is no choice between victory and defeat, the cause is not personal. For others, it might mean the defeat of a President or not, the defeat of a government or not, but for me the question is not that of defeat but the collapse, the destruction, the fragmentation of a homeland. All these causes push you in one direction which is to always feel that you are moving towards victory.

Question: Before the crisis, you were continually meeting with Syrians from different sections of the Syrian people. Do you still do that today?

President Assad: Of course, and more than before, because I need this more than before. My basic principle when I came to the presidency is that an official should not be taken hostage by reports, because his decisions become a hostage of these reports. He should communicate with reality. It is true that an individual citizen might not necessarily have sufficient information, and he doesn’t necessarily have a comprehensive vision, because he sees areas he lives in inside his society, but when you see different sections of society, the real panoramic picture of reality emerges, the reality which you need to deal with. That’s why you need these meetings in the war more than you needed it before the war.

Question: Has the war changed Bashar al-Assad?

President Assad: In the personal sense, I haven’t changed. On the contrary, I believe that the more circumstances push you away from your normal life, the more you should try as much as you can to stay closer to the life you live on the personal level and on the level of dealing with people. On the personal level, I may believe that I’m closer to people and closer to their understanding more so because of the conditions of the war. On the official level, as a President or an official, there is a slight change, and not radical despite the radical nature of the war, because the base of this war is a conspiracy against Syria and subjugating it and the subordination of some Arabs and Western hypocrisy. All that hasn’t changed. The conditions which we have lived since the Palestinian Intifada are still the same and developing. We started with the Intifada, then came 9/11, then the attack on Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, the assassination of Hariri and its repercussions, until what they call the honeymoon between 2008 and 2011 which were full of hypocrisy and pressure. Nothing has changed except the volume of the attack and the fact that the instruments became different. I haven’t changed on the personal and official levels except at a minimum.

Question: Mr. President, you are known for being very close to the Syrian people. You go out and meet people in public places. Have the Syrian people surprised you in this war negatively or positively?

President Assad: The Syrian people is patriotic and has a strong sense of independence and dignity. This has always been there, and we see it today. But what surprised all of us as Syrians are two things, one negative and one positive. We were surprised of the size and level of subordination to foreign powers. It is a small percentage but larger than expected. This is the truth. We used to ask whether it was hidden or whether it was based on the ignorance which is related to extremism. Conversely, a positive aspect surprised us which is the level of heroism. We all used to read stories about Arab history and heroism, but most of these acts of heroism were individual. The heroism we see today, the martyrs, the fighters, the wounded, and their families are forms of collective heroism, not individual, and this is really surprising without any exaggeration. Even if we wanted to invent a story about Syrian heroism, and wanted to exaggerate, we would not reach the level we have seen today. This is surprising and a cause for pride.

Question: Mr. President, I want to conclude, and we are used to your frankness, Mrs. Asma revealed in an interview with Russian television that she received offers to leave Syria. Who made these offers, Mr. President? And where to?

President Assad: At the beginning of the crisis, the two states concerned publicly with the Syrian crisis at that time were Qatar and Turkey. They made that offer directly to her. Of course, they might come out and deny that, but this is the truth. And of course, there were other offers years later, and indirectly, through the Americans to the effect that the President announces that he will not put himself forward as candidate in the next elections in return for providing him with everything wherever he went with immunity from legal prosecution, and he can bring with him whomever he wanted of his team and supporters, and similar things. Of course, these offers came through different channels to this effect, but mainly through the Americans since they are the biggest guarantor for the others, but it has no value.
Question: Was there another visit you made to Russia except the one which was announced?
President Assad: No, absolutely. It was the only visit.

Question: Have you conducted any visits outside Syria during the past six years?

President Assad: Not at all. There was only the visit to Russia.

Question: Are there any unannounced contacts between you and Arab or foreign leaders?

President Assad: Yes, always through channels. They follow this method, particularly foreign leaders, because if news of the meeting or the communication was leaked, they can always deny it and say that this is a private channel, not an official one. Practically, even the foreign delegations which visited us, including the first French parliamentary delegation, which made a great noise, was accompanied by a member of the French intelligence in the French embassy in Beirut and another person from the Ministry of Defense, but the French authorities said then that they have nothing to do with the visit of the delegation. They tried to distance themselves from any communication. But they do that at least to play a political role.

Question: Was there any Russian mediation with Saudi Arabia?

President Assad: Yes, when General Ali Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia about a year and a half ago, a Russian official was there. Yes, that’s true.

Question: Why did it fail?

President Assad: Because Saudi Arabia has one objective which is to make Syria stand against Iran, and we don’t know why we should stand against Iran in order to please Saudi Arabia or to please their backward and perverted mind.

Journalist: Mr. President, thank you very much for this interview.

President Assad: You are welcome, please pass my greetings to all the staff at the newspaper.