Interview with President Bashar al-Assad

Arab-Israeli conflict
Syria and Iraq
Syria and the Gulf
Syria and Lebanon 
Political reform
Syrian media
Freedom of expression
Civil society 

Economic reform
Government changes 


Q. Through what I have seen in Damascus and through the mail we receive at our newspaper it appears that Syrians are optimistic about what is happening in Syria. There is talk that Syria is entering a new phase. What does the president expect for Syria in all fields? What is the general vision today?

A. The general vision is one question that could be summed up in a single answer, and any person at the top of the hierarchy here or in any country has only one and logical answer to this question: To see Syria more prosperous. Of course any citizen would like to see his country as such. Prosperity could be divided into many fields: economic prosperity, political prosperity, scientific prosperity, and prosperity in different domains but all these are based on social prosperity because without social prosperity all other types of prosperity will be false, temporary and elusive. But I do not mean here that we have to achieve social prosperity and then move to achieve prosperity in other domains; rather they should go hand in hand. All these domains affect each other and every one of them affects the other in a positive or negative manner. Sometimes the gap between social domain, particularly in the intellectual sense, and other domains may cause disorder and deviation in the process of development. This is the general vision, and, of course, within every field there are details.

Q. What we witness in Syria is relatively new, particularly concerning political dialogues. Syria is taking steps forward. Can we know what does the president promise these strata who are speaking about his progress; are we going to witness a transition in Syria.

A. It is not possible to start any political development in Syria except through the historical position of the country. I said in my inaugural speech that we are not coming to overthrow the reality but to develop it, and the word ‘development’ means that you are basing yourself on something and moving from it forward and not moving from a vacuum.

Q. Aren’t you afraid of this transition?

A. If there were fear of the idea of development it would not have been suggested in the first place. As I’ve said, every development depends on a social base. Hence the only danger is not to have social and intellectual development. Therefore the timetable for development is not linked to months or years, rather it is linked to the development of society. Here we may move to your question what do I promise them. Also in my inaugural speech I did not promise anything except to work. What I mean here is to work with my full capacity, but I cannot promise any development because development does not depend only on the president of the republic but on all social strata. If development needs every one in society, the entire society has to promise itself that it is going to achieve development. The president of the republic may issue legislations and decrees but this is not enough in order to say that there’s a certain type of development. This takes us back to my starting point which is the necessity to conduct in parallel social development with developments in other fields.

Q. In a purely political matter, the issue of political parties, you spoke and some official institutions issued things about political parties. May we soon witness independent political parties different from the traditional parties or the traditional parties changing to new types of parties? How could the Syrian citizen express himself through the old or the new parties?

A. Let’s discuss things from a point of principle. The timetable of any issue will not lead us anywhere because it is tied to society. Any issue, be it political, economic or cultural or even scientific is certainly linked to the social timetable. Developing society is a complicated process and it is very difficult to put a timetable for it, but you have to put a certain consequence for it and to move as fast as possible without being too hasty. From this perspective, and according to our vision as a party and as a national front, there is no idea that there will not be development to the work of political party in Syria; quite the contrary. Therefore, all possibilities are there among which is the emergence of new political parties without attaching this to a fixed timetable. Here we are discussing the principle only. As for the manner according to which we develop the political situation, that will be done through, first the discussion of the experience that has started in the past and is continuing until today. I mean the political experience in general. To discuss the positive and the negative points and to try and avoid what is negative. The other point is that one has to develop what one has today. The political experience in its present form has to be developed with the aim of moving to a different experience, but one should not move to a different experience before assessing and improving the current experience.

Q. But this can be done in ten days or in twenty years.

A. Time is an issue for discussion. The important thing is to move according to carefully studied steps.

Q. What about the experience of the National Front? Do you consider this a successful experience?

A. We have to ask ourselves, is it true that the idea of the National Front was not a good idea as some claim? - though I believe that in the early seventies it was a pioneering experience - or that the circumstances and the performance led to the weakness of this party experience in Syria. Did circumstances since then until today allow a different experience or were there priorities that influenced the interest of developing the internal policy in general? There are many other questions. We shouldn’t move ahead towards the future without evaluating the past, and of course, the evaluation of the past will be through experiences and reality not through theorizing. We are now passing through a theorizing stage, and theorizing increases when we talk about development, and often theorizing comes .from people who don’t have enough experience on the ground.

Q. Will there be new experiences?

A. All possibilities are open. We do not reject any idea. This issue was the centre-piece of discussion, especially in the parties of the Front including the Ba'ath party. The Front itself was the first to activate discussion on the basis of my inaugural speech in which I cited the issue of development as methodology of thinking and I did not determine the extent or the manner of development, because this issue needs lengthy and deep discussion, and it is currently being discussed within the Front’s parties and within the relevant State establishments.

Q. The Ba’ath Party has consolidated itself, but why are there no other parties ?

A. There are the parties of the Front, and at any rate any development needs discussion. Nobody said that this is an accepted or rejected issue. There is no definite answer until now on the means of further development of the party experience in Syria. We are currently studying this issue. As for the Ba'ath Party, it is based on a pan-Arab ideology, the resurrection of the Arab nation. This ideology will be cancelled when there are no people in the Arab world who believe in this ideology. I see that the situation is going towards the pan-Arab awakening, especially after the Palestinian Intifada. Thereby, the party will not be cancelled unless the pan-Arab ideology is cancelled. The evidence is that the Baath party does not exist only in Syria and Iraq, but it exists in different Arab states. I believe that the Syrian Arab people are known for their pan-Arab feelings and this enhances the ideology of the Baath.


Q. Are there steps for developing Syrian Media?

A. The Syrian mass media was restricted to the Ba’ath party and the state, but recently the parties of the Front started contributing to it and the Syrian media is under study and undergoing development.

Q. Can the Syrian citizen issue a newspaper?

A. Licenses have been issued to one or more independent newspapers.

Q. This means that issuing a paper has become permissible?

A. It is permissible within certain measures. What is the aim of the paper? This is the basis. Does it serve the national and pan-Arab line? There is an old printing law that allows the publication of newspapers, and it is under review, and there will be principles that aim to make the mass media contribute to the development process. The paper should not be with no clear objective, nor should its objective be a hindrance to the development process

Q. Allow me to comment that we have not felt official and effective media coverage to the prosperity you are talking about, and in our opinion, a free press may better cope with the process in an appropriate way.

A. Free press may help the development process and may also work in an opposite direction. The development process is a controlled development and not development without restrictions. It might be a slow process, but what is more important than speed is to guarantee the success of these steps, and that is the most important axis of development, to make accurately studied steps with almost guaranteed results.

If the measures were hasty and not well-studied, this will be dangerous, because the stability of development and its effectiveness is more important than its speediness. The press may well support development. Its supposed lack of effectiveness does not mean that the process of development is not moving ahead. The task of the mass media is to explain the development process and support it. This support might be weak and this will have an influence on development but does not prevent it. The axes of development are multiple but they don’t necessarily move at the same speed. What is important is that it does not stop in the same place. At any rate, Syrian mass media is developing within the available capabilities.

Q. Sometimes, the issue is beyond authority. There is foreign information that reaches Syria including newspapers and satellite Channels. This means that openness to negative press can not be prevented. Doubtless, local press has to cope with developments, and as there is openness to the outside world, isn’t there a risk that things may get out of the control of the Ministry of Information?

A. The existence of open information does not mean that issues would be out of the control of the Ministry of Information, and this indicates clearly that the state wants people to posses means of knowledge including information. Otherwise, the State would have prevented dishes and this is not difficult for the State. This indicates that the state’s wish is to enable the Syrian citizen to receive information. There is no closed mind in order to talk about openness. The one who is not open can not be closed with local press and open with foreign press. There is a desire by the state, and there is no closed mind.

Regarding speed, this is a relative word. Does it mean days, months or years? Every one explains speed in his own way. Let’s move to the risk mentioned in your question. This is also interpreted differently by different people. For example, if you take part in an adventure, another man may consider it ordinary work and not an adventure. But let’s assume that it is an adventure. Man takes risks on one condition, namely when he is forced to reach a certain aim, and if he does not reach that aim there will be danger. We are not in such a condition and therefore the risk is not required.

The second point is that taking risks at the level of the country is dangerous. When the issue is related to development of the country, there can’t be risks. Therefore, the idea of risk in all fields does not exist in our country. Until this moment, we do not feel danger. It is true that we are behind in certain fields and we develop because we know this. Had we not been behind, we would not have started a development process so soon. We are behind but we are developing and this development is being undertaken within the available capabilities and possible speed and time.


Q. A number of Syrian intellectuals meet with foreign journalists. Do these voices go in line with your voice or are they ‘rogues’?

A. I was the first one to usher in these ideas in my inaugural speech, and I proposed them as a methodology and not as slogans for consumption. As for these statements, the President of the Republic does not deal with his country through statements especially when these statements are issued through external channels and not through domestic channels. He also cannot take the opinions of those who claim to speak in the name of the people particularly when the relationship of the president with the people is a direct relationship and does not go through specific channels. It is normal that a small group which considers itself an elite should not represent the broader group of people. The normal thing is that thoughts should be derived from the broader group of people and that smaller group should march under the flag of the broader one. Therefore, the elite is the broad group of the people and not the small one. At least for the state it is normal that the elite should be the broadest group of people. It is wrong that the elite should be the small strata because then it might express limited vision and interests.

Right from the beginning, I had relations with all social strata and these relations are broad and varied and it is only normal that my relations with people do not depend on what is being said here and there. It is clear that there are differences about priority between the broad social strata in our society and between this particular group. For the state it is normal that it should direct its development process in a way that responds to the desires of the majority of the people. The country is a family and when there are problems among members of the same family they are not supposed to talk about these problems outside their home because if they do they will not be respected by others. Here we may ask ourselves the question which home? The home is Syria, or is it the Arab world? If we assume that Arab states are relatives within the same big family, nonetheless a member of a small family does not speak even to his relatives about his private problems. Thoughts must pass through specific channels, and personally I did not read such statements. I heard about them. Some one addresses you from outside your country, it is only natural not to take him seriously. The second point is that the statements were called statements of the educated people. I do not know the persons who have called themselves educated. Are they truly educated or what! I have no information. But what is meant by the word educated. It is a general word to an extent. Is the one who reads and knows different topics educated? Is the one who has degrees educated? Is the one who reads many books educated? Is the one who writes poetry or story or novel or works in the press educated? Education is a vague word, and, at any rate, this classification is not adopted by me. There are two kinds of persons. One who takes and receives a lot of information and then he reproduces this information as it was and hence his mind becomes a storage for information which is produced by him for display from one time to another. There is another type of people who receive information, analyze it in order to reproduce it as a conclusion after it is being analyzed and treated. Hence it gives results. This man has a brain and he thinks and his thinking may be in one of two ways. A person who thinks and comes out with harmful results to his country and a person who thinks and comes out with useful results to his country. Therefore, one has to separate people to an intellectual and non-intellectual, and one has to add to the possibility of thinking the possibility of implementation. In conclusion, not every one who reads or writes becomes an intellectual and not every one who thinks is able to write and express his thoughts. But the more important thing here is how many thoughts or conclusions he can apply. There can be no application of these thoughts unless one is quite removed from intellectual romanticism. Intellectual realism can be achieved only through people who have experience. Therefore in the process of development we depend on our past experiences and rely on people who went through these experiences regardless of whether these experiences were successful or not successful in different processes of development. Hence, we can get away from intellectual exaggerations and avoid making the process of development a fertile soil for those looking for fame or searching to manipulate the current. At the end we reach the kind of development which we consider appropriate for our country.

Q. How do the voices and suggestions of the broadest group of people reach you?

A. I am not far removed from all social strata. The relation of the president with these strata is not a relation of problems, solutions and proposals. The relation is one of interaction. It is a result of the way the person had been brought up since early childhood and his interaction with his society. This kind of relation carries with it a continuous dialogue with all the negative and the positive aspects of that. And it is a relationship in two directions. It passes through the official or none official channels which are direct channels, and this is done through the direct interaction the president keeps with people.

Q. But there are people who do not dare speak in front of the President.

A. If the truth does not reach us how did we know that there is a kind of disorder and how did we know where the disorder potentially is, and how do I push the development process. Is it possible to push for development without knowing that there’s a certain kind of disorder. How did I know about the disorder? All this is done through official channels, including the press and my relations with the citizens as well as through the fact that throughout all stages of one’s life one is living with disorders in a direct way.

Q. What is your opinion about what has been said about these educated people that they are agents to foreign embassies.

A. Let’s discuss this point in an objective way regardless of what has been said about the incident to which you refer in your question. In all societies there’s black and white; there are people with good intentions and people with bad intentions and therefore we cannot say this exists in this society or in that. In our society, as in others, there are different people who have relations with foreign channels; as for the extent of these relations it is subject to different possibilities and therefore we are not addressing a definite case. Can we say that all people are agents? It is impossible. Can we say that any one who proposes an idea that seems to be positive is patriotic? Also this is impossible. This means that when our judgments are absolute they are bound to be wrong because all possibilities are open. Hence, the generalization of any description of people is rejected, but this does not mean that there are no exceptions. But regardless of the descriptions you referred to in your question we may look at the issue in a different way. When there is a case subjected to court regarding a crime or an offense and it touches a group of individuals the court may deal with it through intentions such as to say that the premeditated killer should receive a different punishment from the killer on diminished responsibility. At the level of the country the issue is different. When the consequences of any action affect stability at the level of a country there are two possibilities: one that the actor is an agent who is working against the interests of the state and he is either ignorant or doing it without intending to do so. The result is that in both cases the person will be serving the enemies of his country. And here, at the level of a country the results are addressed immediately. Here the person will be held fully responsible regardless of his intentions and backgrounds.


Q. How do you see the idiom ‘civil society’ that is being talked about in Syria?

A. There is a confusion between civil society and the institutions of civil society. The civil society is a civilized society that is the result of accumulation of civilizations during hundreds and thousands of years. Syria has a history that goes back to a more than six thousand years of human civilizations. To say that we want to build a civil society means that we want to cancel all this history and start with a new history. Of course this is not realistic, besides the fact that it means a rejection of this history and an attempt to get out of it. Any one who tries to get out of this history is one who gets out of his present and future. As for the institutions of civil society they are a different matter, and they are in Syria though they might not be perfect, but this is not the issue. The main issue is that these institutions are not an alternative to government institutions as some suggest, and they should not precede them in the process of construction. On the contrary, civil institutions are based on government institutions and support them and not a replacement for them. One cannot talk about healthy institutions for civil society without talking about completing the building of government’s institutions. As we have spoken about the necessity of reforming institutions and consolidating institutional thinking the development of civil society institutions should come at a later stage, and therefore it does not represent one of our priorities. At any rate, societies develop at their own natural pace, and not through idioms which are proposed by some in order to make ready-made small frameworks in which big societies are stuffed and their movement obstructed and their identity reduced. Idioms do not produce societies while societies produce the appropriate idioms and give them the right shape and content that are consistent with their different circumstances and are flexible in order to move in line with the movement of the society.

Q. Statements in the foreign press are focusing on criticizing the last phase in Syrian history since the Bath party held power in the country in 1963 and through the period in which the late president Hafez al Assad ruled, why don’t we hear a reply?

A. Of course it is part of life to criticize what is negative, and as a result people may criticize any phase of the history of society. But when a person wants to ascribe all negative things to a certain stage and holds it responsible for all the disorders he must have drawn a comparison with the stages preceding this stage and concluded that this is the worst among all historical stages. If we were to apply this principle on what some claim that the last four decades in Syrian history were responsible for all the negative points we witness today and for all the problems from which we suffer, and compares this stage with the previous stages which have preceded it we would find that the last four decades were preceded by two major historical phases: first the phase of coup d’etat and the second is the phase of occupation. It seems that those prefer for their country the phase of coup d’etat and the phase of occupation to the stable phase which started in 1963 and was consolidated in 1970 and continued until today, but they were embarrassed to say this frankly and that is why they expressed it in a different way. As for your question why didn’t the government respond, it is because the government depends on the awareness of people and their national consciousness who immediately realized that this group of people is a group who is looking for a place on the map of fame and prestige, and today we have nothing in our hands except the map of development and construction. As for the stage of Hafez al Asad, the achievement of that phase and the appreciation of the Syrian people both to the achievements and to the leader are the best answer for them.

Q. Is it possible for you to reconsider what you have started?

A. It is normal to look for different paths in different domains of development. When we feel, in a certain domain, that we have reached a point that is harmful to the process of development it is natural to stop and review our work. At that point we would have to decide whether we continue on the old path, or whether we change direction, or whether we go back completely and look for a different path. But, of course, convictions do not change. There might be better and less risky routes. If a certain measure is taken it is a change in the method and not in conviction.

Q. What are the limits of the openness you envisage?

A. There are two levels: the horizontal which is confined to the borders of the country and the vertical which is decided through the security and stability of the country. Hence, under the ceiling of the stability of the country and within the approach of development every thing is permitted. Apart from that, the government shall stand firmly against any work that might cause harm to public interest.


Q. What about economic reform? Doesn’t it require speed and taking risks in order to put Syria on the list of developed countries? Where is Bashar alAsad in economy and where are the red and the green lines? Where is the openness in Banking systems and tariffs for example?.

A. Green lines, if this is the correct expression, come within economic prosperity and it is a clear concept that has two basic pillars: to increase jobs and raise the standard of living for citizens in general, and both of them may be achieved on the ground through a just distribution of income. Every thing that achieves these two objectives is an approach that the State supports.

Q. Where is openness for example in banking and tariff?

A. Our approach does not define openness or closeness; rather it defines development. As for openness or closeness they are means which may either serve or obstruct development according to the field and circumstance. Hence, economic development is the focal point of the discussion today in Syria, and it enjoys a high priority and through development for this priority there are no limits for development in any other domain.

Q. After the measures you have taken, did you see any result for them or is it early to talk about results now?

A. Some legislative or other measures yield fast result after they are taken, while the results of some other measures may take longer time. But the aim of most legislations which have so far been issued is to prepare a solid ground for launching. There are other important measures and legislations which are still under cotisideration or under discussion in different institutions inside the government and outside it. Sometimes discussions take a long time and delay some of the measures, but we always try to make the greatest number of people and parties contribute to these measures in order to achieve the maximum benefit for the country. All these laws will leave an impact on the society in general, and therefore if they were issued without very careful and deep study they might leave a negative impact on a broad scale, and this is what we always try to avoid.

Q. Are you very cautious or optimistic?

A. We are very realistic and we are cautious about what is beyond our reality, I mean the future. The future has not become a reality. The reality is the present. And it is normal to be cautious about the future until it becomes reality and at that point one deals with it confidently.


Q. The image of Dr. Bashar before assuming office was linked to fighting corruption, but then we felt that this endeavor has receded, that is not to say that it has stopped.

A. On what basis do we say that fighting corruption has stopped or is continuing?

Q. Titles and names.

A. As if I understand from what you are saying that combating corruption is there only if there are well-known names put to trial, but if there were guilty people who are not known and who are put to trial this means that combating corruption has stopped! Of course, this is illogical. Combating corruption is a continuous work through institutions whose task is to follow on the disorders in different state institutions. These institutions whose task is to combat corruptions are like any other institution; they have their employees and their laws. Some times there is an activation to the work of these institutions and other times there is a weakness in their performance. Therefore like any other institution it needs continuous activation and development in order to continue its task which is to fight the disorder in the country.

The other point is that combating corruption cannot be achieved through chasing some persons; rather it should be done through following up on issues. Among these issues there might be people who have committed mistakes in various degrees, and they are tried through one specific issue. What I mean is that the principle is to reach persons through issues rather than to arrive at issues through persons, as some like to believe. Combating corruption also is not only a matter of trying people. Any one who only finds in combating corruption bringing people to trial is like some one who does not see anything in politics except war. Trying people is the last resort in combating corruption and it might be an emergency measure at exceptional circumstances, but the real work for combating corruption is a carefully planned approach that has different areas among which, for example, is the improvement of administrative performance which does not allow people to commit mistake in their work, or at least which reduces the mistakes that might be committed to a minimal level and allow people to improve their performance without allowing them to sink to low practices. As a result this would protect the institution from sinking down. Also the improvement of the economic level of government employees is a very important factor. There are other factors, as well, the most important of which is the way people are brought up at home. Otherwise how could we explain that if two persons are put in similar circumstances which help them to be corrupt one of them gets cormpted and the other does not. When the correct circumstances are not provided there will be a need to check on people, and bringing them to trial is, in this case, a temporary element and not a permanent element in fighting corruption. In order to reach far-reaching and effective measures to combat corruption all other factors have to be provided for. But I emphasize that fighting corruption is continuing and will not stop, and cannot stop, because as I always say corruption is there due to the existence of societies and interests.


Q. It is circulated that there is a lack of harmony among decision makers in their methodology and their response to current issues.

A. The lack of harmony in the approach of some decision makers may create a problem if there is no one to link their different or contradictory thoughts, and this linkage is done by the directly higher level whose task is to collect all these ideas in an attempt to reach a common denominator and make the appropriate decisions. Thus the disharmony in the presence of an enabled higher level is a variance of ideas which might be considered an incentive to derive new ideas, and this is the basis for development. Hence, the focal point is not the presence or absence of harmony but the focal point is the presence of some one who is able to manage a group of people whether they were harmonious or not. This idea is true at all levels.

Q. When you became president there was a talk about a change of cabinet, where is that change?

A. Every change must have a purpose and predictable results to serve this purpose, and every change in government will be done when there is a necessity for that and at the appropriate time.

Q. It seems that you prefer to take your decisions as a surprise, especially important decisions. Is the element of surprise the one that prevents the revelation of a future government change?

A. We in Syria believe that actions speak louder than words. In the media we may discuss the approach, the principles and the directions but we do not discuss decisions till they are taken and they become a reality.