On 8 February, 2001, the Arab newspaper, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, published a long interview with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. In this key political statement, the president outlined his views on a wide range of issues. The full text is reproduced here, in an official Syrian translation.
Freedom of expression
Q. If Israel offered a proposal for peace coherent with the Syrian demands is it possible that Syria may sign an agreement ahead of the Palestinians?
A. We have always insisted that the ultimate goal is just and comprehensive peace. "Comprehensive" means all the occupied territories: the Golan and Lebanon do not constitute this comprehensive peace and therefore there has to be a symmetry between the Syrian and Lebanese tracks on the one hand and the Palestinian track on the other.
Q. Please allow me to repeat the question: if you received a full proposal and all what you have to do is to sign it will you do that?
A. Starting from the same point, even if Syria were to sign an agreement this would not mean the end of the conflict and the establishment of peace. We start from a Pan-Arab stand. What about 4 million Palestinians living in the Diaspora and what about the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank? Even now, ten years after the beginning of the peace process they have not got any thing from the Israeli side that is remotely related to an independent State or Sovereignty or rights. Hence we cannot see things from a narrow perspective. That is why we insist on a comprehensive peace. The word comprehensive enjoys a pan Arab connotation and we insist on comprehensive peace and on cooperation and coordination with the Arabs on other tracks.
Q. I hope to hear a candid answer, will you sign?
A. Are we being asked to sign something that is not comprehensive? To sign something against our principles? We want a just and comprehensive peace and we will not back away from this: just and comprehensive peace.
Q. This means that you will not sign before the Palestinians?
A. The issue is not to sign or not to sign. Tracks should move simultaneously. We do not know, they might sign before us. We shall not sign on anything unless we make sure that it serves the region and achieves an enduring peace because our aim is not just to sign a peace treaty on paper. A peace agreement is a means while the objective is peace on the ground. If the peace agreement is not an agreement of a just and comprehensive peace, peace will be fragile and temporary. Therefore we are not ready to sign a peace agreement unless we feel that this is going to be an enduring peace, and peace will not be enduring unless it restores all Arab rights with no exception whatsoever. Therefore if one Arab party signed a peace agreement this will not solve the problem and this has been proven through previous peace Arab experiences with Israel.
Q. If the Palestinians singed an agreement that does not take Arab interests into account what would be the Syrian stand in this case?
A. If the Palestinians signed they will impose a reality, and dealing with this reality must take into account the point of view of the Palestinian people.
Q. If the Palestinian people agreed does this absolve Syria of its commitment to a comprehensive peace?
A. We leave this issue to the Palestinian people who have proven through their Intifada, that they are active people. If the Palestinian people approve of an agreement it is natural that Syria will accept it. But does any one in the world expect that there are people who would be ready to give up their land and their right to return to this land?
Q. Regarding the issue of refugees, if the Palestinians signed an agreement in which the issue is left to them to decide whether to stay where they are or not to stay, would Syria in this case accept to accommodate the Palestinians on its territory?
A. From a Pan Arab perspective we do not object to any Arab citizen in Syria. This is an Arab starting point and we are with any decision the Palestinians in Syria may take. In all cases we have never heard from any Palestinian that they might accept to renounce their right to return. The only thing we have heard from them is their insistence to return and this is what they emphasize all the time.
Q. Do you expect the Palestinians to sign an agreement in the near future?
A. We do not base our stands on expectations. We study all the possibilities, and in case no agreement is signed there will be a certain reality. If signing takes place there will be a different reality, and we deal with both possibilities. Every thing is possible and we do not have any information now but we go back to say that the Intifada (uprising) has created a new way of thinking. Any one who is truly interested will necessarily ask the following question: would any agreement be effective if it were not approved by the Palestinian people who have proven their role and importance. Any agreement signed without the approval of the Palestinian people will be worthless. Thus assessments today are different from what they were previously.
Q. Are there contacts regarding continuing the negotiations?
A. No, no there isn’t. There is a complete stalemate. The reason is that no mediator is able to do anything without the provision of elements from both sides. The stand of Syria and its principles regarding the peace process remain unchanged, whereas the Israelis in, all what they propose, are still far removed from the real pursuit to make true peace.
Q. What is the problem? What is the difference between the Syrian and Israeli stands?
A. The Principle of Land for Peace; the substance of peace is either unclear or unacceptable to them.
Q. Is the Israeli stand still where it was regarding the Eastern part of the Tiberius lake?
Q. And also the issue of water?
A. We refuse to speak about any issue unless there is an agreement on the most substantive issue and the most substantive principle. Therefore there is no talk about any other issue. First an agreement should be reached about the substance. What is the use of reaching an agreement about water if there is a difference about territory which is the substantive issue here. Therefore Syria will not engage in discussing any issue until it guarantees the full return of its entire territory to the line of June 4, 1967.
Q. It is being said that the stands of Dr. Bashar make him more intransigent than the late President Hafez al Asad.
A. This is relative. What President Hafez al Asad asked for is exactly what I am asking for without taking anything out of it or adding anything to it. Syrian rights have not changed and the Syrian people who are the owners of these rights did not change either. President Hafez al Asad did not make any concession and we, in Syria today and tomorrow and in the future, shall never make any concession, so what is the difference between his stand and mine?
Q. How do you deal with the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister and what do you expect from him?
A. We say to every one these are our requirements for peace. Any one who is able to respond to these requirements we are ready to pursue negotiations with him. We deal with reality and not with expectations. We deal with tangible things.
Q. What is your opinion in the new American administration?
A. Until now there is no contact between us and we do not have any information.
Q. What do you expect from President Bush?
A. We do not expect anything except what we want: to be neutral and objective in co-sponsoring the peace process and to be effective in implementing Security Council resolutions and in pressuring the Israeli side to return the full Arab rights. At any rate it is quite early to speak about expectations.
Q. What about the fact that the US considers Syria a country that supports terrorism, and what is puzzling is that you deal with the United States despite this odd situation?
A. This is a question that should be directed to the Americans. The concept of terrorism is what the United States has defined and we have nothing to do with it as it was defined. We differentiate between terrorism and resistance. In all eases this issue is a means of pressure but not an effective one at all. We continue our domestic and Arab work and do not link our work to this concept at all. From our side we look for good relations with all states including the United States.
Q. Does this type of relation affect you?
A. The United States does not allow the transfer of technology to Syria but there are other sources for technology on which we depend in developing our technology.
Q. Why didn’t we see Arafat in Damascus?
A. The doors of Syria are open. But meetings should have an objective, an agenda and a definite aim. The Syrian approach is well-known. We always advocate the support of the Palestinian track despite all circumstances. But our objective is clear; it is to restore our full rights with nothing missing whatsoever. Coordination with the Palestinian side should be strictly for this objective, particularly as the experience of nine years in the peace process has proven that there is no alternative to the full return of Arab rights according to United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Q. It had been noticed that there is a high level of coordination in the Syrian-Saudi relations; what are the consequences of this coordination on the Arab Israeli conflict?
A. Saudi Arabia has clear stands on Arab issues, including the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. There is continuous coordination on many levels regarding these issues and emergency issues. This coordination has proven to be effective in different cases and circumstances which are related not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict but also to all issues concerning the Arab nation, particularly Arab solidarity.
Q. There is a talk about an Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi alliance?
A. I believe that neither Syria, nor Egypt or Saudi Arabia believe in the policy of alliances or try to be part of an alliance. But there are countries which are more engaged with certain issues than other countries, and there are issues which are more important than others, and there are issues which become more paramount in certain circumstances than others. This sometimes results in coordination between certain countries regarding these particular issues. Of course, there is a very important factor which is the effectiveness of these states regarding these particular issues. Hence, the necessary and effective coordination among Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, especially during this stage.
SYRIA AND IRAQ
Q. We notice a huge change in the relationship between Syria and Iraq and also between Syria and Jordan and even with Turkey, and this has taken place in less than a year.
A. As for the relationship with Jordan and since king Abdullab has assumed office he sought to develop Jordan’s relations with Arab countries and especially with Syria. Thus the development of relations with Jordan started with the coming of King Abdullah. Perhaps the relation of friendship and respect between king Abdullah and myself may have contributed to pushing these relations forward. As for our relationship with Iraq, it did not start only lately; rather it has started in 1997. More Iraqi senior officials are visiting Damascus recently and this is a natural result of the development of these relations which have started to improve four years ago, but the improvement became clear during the last few months.
As for our relations with Turkey; these relations have been improving since 1998 till today and they continue to improve. I mean there are no sudden jumps in these relations. They develop gradually. It is a mere coincidence that the development of our relations with the countries you have mentioned has taken place during the same period of time. But the common principle in developing these relation is to avoid all the negative aspects which appear from time to time, and this in itself reinforces the positive points.
Q. It had been noticed that there is a certain dynamic movement with Iraq. It is true that the relations with Iraq go back to 1997 but the volume of development in these relations during the last few months has doubled from what it has been during the last few years.
A. What is noticeable basically is the increase of the Iraqi senior officials who are visiting Syria. As we have said before, and we reiterate now, that the doors of Syria are open to all our Arab brothers.
Q. We know that the doors of Syria had always been open, so what is the explanation to what is happening now?
A. As you have just said the doors of Syria had always been open, which means that nothing has changed as far as we are concerned in Syria. Our brothers in Iraq seem to have taken the initiative to develop relations with Syria and with other Arab countries as well. Quite few Arab countries, including Syria, have responded in kind. Syria is very interested in stopping the suffering of the Iraqi people and enhancing Arab solidarity.
Q. How do you accommodate the warmth of relations with Iraq at a time you keep the Iraqi opposition in Syria? How does an Iraqi senior official accept the existence of Iraqi opposition as he sits with you in the Presidential palace?
A. The Iraqi opposition is certainly not against Iraq. Every Iraqi citizen is with his country and not with the unfair sanctions. The opposition is an opposition to a political system. If you ask any member in the Iraqi opposition inside or outside Iraq he would certainly have the same opinion regarding lifting the sanctions and putting an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people. We support things within this framework: to uplift sanctions against the Iraqi people and this is not a political alliance with a front against another.
Q. There’s something else that is not clear; is it true that the size of the Iraqi opposition has shrunk inside Syria?
A. We did not interfere with this issue. Syria did not interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq and thus it did not support one party against another. The doors of Syria remained open to all and to all the Iraqis, particularly as the current stage is a difficult stage for the Arab nation as a whole. We might have a different perspective from the perspective of many parties, and we might have political or other objections to what any Arab country might do, but there are priorities for the dangers and priorities for addressing these dangers, and, in consequence, for dealing with points of difference. No difference regarding any issue should affect the central issue such as Palestine, the Intifada (uprising), the territorial integrity of Iraq and Arab solidarity.
Q. What about the central issue for another Arab citizen in the Gulf?
A. There’s no citizen in the Gulf who would accept the destruction of Iraq or its disintegration even if he is against the system in it. Hence, there are issues that are more important than others. For the sake of Arab solidarity we should renounce our differences.
Q. Now you receive Tariq Aziz and Taha Yassin Ramadan and other Iraqi officials and you are talking about the territorial integrity of Iraq and lifting the sanctions against Iraq, whereas the Palestinians have a central issue of Gaza and the West Bank, why don’t you receive a Palestinian official in Syria?.
A. Palestinian officials visited Damascus although I did not meet with them but I have said in a press conference that we are convening meetings with some senior Palestinian officials which aim to support the Palestinian stand especially in these circumstances, particularly as Israel has proven that it does not want peace.
Q. Do we expect Syria to receive the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein?
A. As I have said, our doors are open to every one.
Q. Is it possible that we might see President Bashar al Asad in Baghdad?
A. Until now there is nothing of the kind. Things depend on circumstances. This might come at a different stage of the development of relations between Syria and Iraq. It might also come in the way of bringing Iraq to play its important role at the Arab level once all differences are resolved.
Q. But the Gulf states have a huge sensitivity regarding this issue. How do they accept this picture?
A. They know that we have not changed our stand. I have said in a press conference that our stand has not changed and this is something that all Gulf countries know. There’s coordination between us and the Gulf states and we have always stress that we do not want to win one country in order to lose another. We would like to maintain good relations with all Arab countries and we want these relations to be good among the Arab countries themselves. This is one of the basic constants of Syrian policy. Therefore any step we take should be made in coordination with other Arab countries. We always try not to separate between bilateral relations and Arab-Arab relations. That is why we say that the Syrian-Iraqi relations or the Syrian relations with any other Arab country should take Arab-Arab relations into account.
Q. Did this latest move with Iraq provoke the sensitivity of the Saudis and the Kuwaitis?
A. We do not make any bilateral move that is not consistent with the stability of Arab-Arab relations. This of course requires continuous coordination and consultation. We enjoy such a coordination and consultation with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and they know the stand of Syria and they trust this stand because it is announced and public.
Q. Could Syria play a role in bringing the points of views closer?
A. One of the constants of Syrian politics is to consolidate Arab solidarity. Iraq cannot be outside the frame of this idea. It is true that there’s a problem, and we, as Arab countries, should exert all efforts to solve this problem.
Q. Damascus is known for trying to separate between the Iraqi system and the Iraqi people, and we see you today dealing with some of the symbols of this system. What has happened?
A. There were differences and there was candidness and a review of the past. We considered this a lesson to learn from and not to relive. The final objective is Arab solidarity and this requires going beyond past differences.
Q. But you are dealing with the system?
A. The difference with any party is not a personal difference but a difference about issues. Our stands have not changed and our closeness or distance with any party differ according to their approach to Arab issues.
Q. It is said that Jordan has lost its special relation with Iraq and that Syria now enjoys this special relation; is this due to your shrewdness?
A. There is no doubt that the historical position of Syria and the strong relation between the Syrian and Iraqi people, despite the fact that there has been a long boycott between the two countries, give a special tinge to the relation between Syria and Iraq and also the relation between Iraq and Jordan and between Jordan and Syria. It is not necessary that the development of relations between two countries should be at the expense of a third.
SYRIA AND THE GULF
Q. What about the relationship with the Emirates which you have visited lately? What was the objective of this visit? Does it have anything to do with the issue of the islands? Especially as this visit of yours has preceded your visit to Tehran. What were exactly the messages which were exchanged between you and the Iranians and the Emirates?
A. There are no messages. The visits aimed at assessing the situation in the Arab world and were in response to invitations to visit the two countries. It was also an opportunity to congratulate Sheikh Zaed for good health after his return from his trip for treatment. The two visits were made to get acquainted with the stands of the two countries and not to convey messages between them.
Q. Do you believe that the issue of the islands is approaching a solution?
A. What we have heard from both sides is their desire to have a peaceful solution, and this is the essence of the issue. Whether the solution will be close or far off, this will depend on the circumstances in both countries.
Q. Wasn’t Syria asked to mediate between the two?
A. We were not asked to mediate.
Q. For many years Syria was mediating between The Gulf and Iran. It is believed that Syria has succeeded in reducing the lranian-Iraqi conflict and preventing the spread of the Gulf war, so why should it odd if there’s a Syrian move in the same direction now?
A. Of course, there’s no reason why not. But the state between them is not a state of war. We said that we would like to get to know their stands and the perspectives expressed have shown that there’s no state of war.
Q. How does Iran see Lebanon? It was clear that Iran was greatly interested in Lebanon during the Israeli occupation of the South of Lebanon. Now Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon. Did you discuss Iran interest in Lebanon during your visit?
A. We discussed all issues. There was a comprehensive assessment of the situation in the region and in the world. There was an assessment of the regional and the international situation, and of course Lebanon is part of the regional situation. There’s also the Peace Process and Syria and Lebanon are in one track of the Peace Process, and so it is nonnal to discuss this issue. The triumph of the resistance, the Intifada (the uprising) and the Palestinian issue are all interrelated; none can be separated from the other.
SYRIA AND LEBANON
Q. What is your view of the Taif agreement and the provisions which were not implemented, particularly the provision of the redeployment of the Syrian forces in Lebanon?
A. The Taif agreement aimed at putting Lebanon on the road to reconciliation and reform in many fields, particularly in the field of eliminating political sectarianism and achieving the return of the displaced. The agreement also touched upon the redeployment of the Syrian forced during a period that was supposed to be enough to implement all its provisions which were mentioned in parallel. This period was estimated to be about two years, and it was left up to the two countries to assess and decide the circumstances in which redeployment should take place. These circumstances were changing continuously after Taif. The unification of Beirut, the restoration of legitimacy, the Kuwaiti war, the peace negotiations, the simultaneity of the two tracks, and in consequence circumstances have rapidly changed.
The presence of the Syrian forces in Lebanon has two objectives: the one for which Syria has entered Lebanon which is reconciliation, and this has to be defined by the Lebanese state. The other objective is linked to the mutual Syrian-Lebanese interests and this is connected to the issue of peace and war with Israel. Therefore we hear discussions which often revolve around one side of this presence. Of course the inseparability of the two tracks is not just a Syrian but a Syrian-Lebanese affair. But the issue concerning reconciliation is a Lebanese affair. But it is not the business of one party in Lebanon or one particular Lebanese personality; rather it is the business of the Lebanese state. The Lebanese state usually does what it believes that serves the national interest of Lebanon and meets national consensus.
Q. What about the dialogue between Damascus and Bkirki ‘the headquarters of the Maronite patriarchy in Lebanon’ or what is called the Syrian-Christian dialogue?
A. As a rule Syria does not deal with these types of dialogues and what was called the Syrian-Christian dialogue is, as far as we are concerned, a Lebanese-Lebanese dialogue. While some of them try to suggest that it is directed at Syria, Syria insists on the necessity of directing this dialogue to it through the state of Lebanon. This comes within the Syrian efforts to consolidate the Lebanese state rather than to weaken it. Once Syria accepts to conduct this kind of dialogue which is one sided - as if one is conducting a dialogue with oneself - once it accepts to deal with it seriously it means that Syria is belittling the state of Lebanon while Syria tries, especially after the Taif agreement. to consolidate the state of Lebanon. I believe that this is the only right way to have a healthy Lebanon.
Q. What about meetings conducted in Damascus with Christian personalities, don’t you believe that this kind of dialogue is an alternative to the role of the state of Lebanon?
A. First, these meetings were not confined to any religious group. Second, There are two types of dialogue. The first type of dialogue is that in which you listen to the persons in order to form an idea, and the second type of dialogue is the one you conduct in order to make a decision. We have many Lebanese friends and we meet with them, and sometimes we meet with people who might not be close to Syria. Thus we form an idea through what we hear from those. As for the dialogue with the aim of making decisions it should be conducted only with the State. Ultimately any dialogue conducted with any Lebanese personality, and regardless of the conclusion we draw in Syria. this conclusion is immediately conveyed to the Lebanese State. Hence, the idea we form here has to be complemented with the idea which Lebanon has. Some people believe that these meetings supersede the state of Lebanon. This is not true. On the contrary, the dialogue, whether it were conducted through the state of Lebanon or not, will go back to the state of Lebanon.
Q. To talk a bit more about the legitimacy of dialogue. The dialogue is legitimate with the president but there is a long history of dialogue between Syria and other Lebanese characters, and no one used to differentiate between the type of dialogue and its objectives. Did this distinction today between different types of dialogue become noticeable?
A. I have drawn a distinction between making contact for dialogue or making contact to make a decision. Making contacts for dialogues has no limits. To make contact with any party or any personality within the Lebanese society is a healthy thing, but making contact for taking decisions is strictly done through the state of Lebanon, because any decision must achieve the interests of the two countries: Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, it is natural, and it is necessary, that the Lebanese state should fully participate in this contact and dialogue.
Q. There are people in Lebanon who hold the President responsible for not conducting a dialogue with Syria or with Lebanese personalities and that Syria, in this case, is conducting the dialogue in his place.
A. It depends on what is meant by dialogue. Does it mean confrontation or an exchange of ideas. If some mean that dialogue means confrontation the relationship between President Lahud and us is a relationship of understanding, appreciation and mutual respect. As for the dialogue in order to exchange ideas I do not believe that there is a person who conducts a dialogue with Syria as President Lahud does. As for the second part of your question it is a Lebanese internal affair.
Q. Are there going to be differences between you and President Lahud? Do you agree with him on his vision and everything else; were there any problems with him.
A. Generally speaking if there are no differences why should one conduct a dialogue? This is self-evident. One conducts a dialogue with the other person in order to get to know his point of view about certain issues, and when he finds differences in the point of view of the other from his own point of view one tries to find a common denominator and this is the most natural dialogue between two persons. And this is what enables people to reach positive results and I say that there are no identical things: even twins are not identical. Speaking about being identical is theoretical and often the difference is not about a strategic objective but about small details and this can be found among all friends and persons. Therefore we meet and phone each other to discuss different topics.
Q. Didn’t President Lahud send you an envoy or talk to you on the phone to object to a certain decision?
A. No, for a simple reason, that when there’s a decision to be taken it is not taken without the agreement of the two countries on it. Syria does not take any decision unless it is agreed upon by Lebanon. Hence, if Lebanon has a different point of view from ours we continue our dialogue until we reach a common perspective on which we agree with Lebanon.
Q. But there might be different points of view inside the official Lebanese institution; the government, the Parliament. It is quite well known that the President represents the Lebanese state but there criticism directed at him. My question is do the common decision taken by the President with Syria truly express the opinion of the Lebanese state?
A. The differences you are talking about are differences on Lebanese issues. There’s no difference between President Lahud and Lebanese officials on a Syrian-Lebanese subject. At least this is what we know through what is said in public. Therefore what is there between Syria and the others is exactly what is there between Syria and President Lahud. As for the differences among them they are related to a different topic regarding Lebanese-Lebanese relationship, the relationship of government institutions with each other, the relationship of the country with the rest of society, and Syria has nothing to do with that.
Q. It is believed that a Syrian official has announced the agreement of Damascus that President Lahud handles the political file. This was considered a Syrian intervention in Lebanese affair and a kind of support to the President against the Prime Minister. It seemed that Syria was no longer neutral and started to play a role in the internal Lebanese conflicts.
A. We cannot possibly stand with one of them against the other because we do not consider them adversaries. Therefore any party that might promote such an idea or such a concept shows that this party does not believe in the hierarchy of the state, and thus the concept of the state would be missing. We, in Syria, like every one else in the world, believe in the hierarchy of the state and it is only natural that the President of the republic is the head of this hierarchy. The head of the hierarchy does not represent only the political or the economic aspects but all aspects. As a result all aspects of the Lebanese society culminate with the President of the republic. There are things which are subject to the constitution and things which are subject to prevailing political norms. In effect Syria deals with this Lebanese reality. Syria does not adopt one particular point of view that one official should handle one file and the other should handle another file.
Q. Let’s assume that Hariri came to discuss with you a certain political topic would you say to him that you are confined to economic topics?
A. We speak to any person who comes from Lebanon, even if he were not an official, about all topics. We are open to discuss all things with every one. As for dealing with Syria as a state, each institution deals with its counterpart in Lebanon which means that economic institutions deal with economic institutions, nunistries deal with ministries, organizations deal with organizations and the president of the republic with the President of the republic in the fields limited to them during official meetings. That is why we differentiate between what goes on in a dialogue outside the official work, even if they were officials and between what happens at work. What I mean is that if there’s an official in Syria responsible in a certain field and is sanctioned a certain authority cannat discuss with his Lebanese counterpart except the except the topics that are allotted to him. This of course depends on the aim of the visit and the kind of meeting. Meetings are open and every thing may be discussed in them but if there’s a meeting between two officials in economy they will talk about economy and if the official is responsible for a political file the talk will be conducted within the framework of this file, and this will be made clear in the agenda of the meeting. Sometimes there's no agenda and the meeting is open to all issues.
Q. It is believed that you support president Lahud more than the speaker of Parliament Mr. Nabih Bin and the Prime Minister Mr. Rafik al Hariri, what is your comment on this?
A. Regardless of the names, if we talk about positions it is normal that the president is the head of the hierarchy and this is stated in the Lebanese constitution and in all countries. All the elements of society and state culminate with the President of the republic. As the President is the head of the hierarchy and as all elements of society culminate with him, supporting the president means the support for all institutions. When you support the president of the republic you are supporting the speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister. It is true that these might have their own differences but this is not part of the constitution. Constitution does not equate between the president of the republic and other officials. The President is the symbol of Lebanon, and the support for the symbol of Lebanon is support for all Lebanon and all its officials. Hence we go back to the same point. We do not see them as adversaries. There’s a hierarchy and the support for the head of the hierarchy is support for all the hierarchy.
Q. It was mentioned that Damascus has restricted the political file to president Lahud in the aftermath of the incident when the Prime minister Rafiq al Harir presided in a meeting for the central security council and then when Bin spoke in Bkarki he received a critical response from Syria.
A. We, in Syria, look for harmony and not for differences or conflicts. We would like to ensure the respect for the hierarchy, and therefore we say that it is natural that the position of the President is not equal to any other position. The second point is that the Syrian response to what has happened in Bkarki is not an answer to the speaker of Parliament, Mr. Bin, but a response to some people who wrongly understood that Syria has engaged in a dialogue while Syria was not there and was not interested in that dialogue right from the start. The stand of Syria came as an answer to the expectations that Syria might do something in the future whereas it did not announce that, did not discuss it with any one and did not conduct a dialogue with any one in that regard. It has been proven that what has been circulated then was not correct. Syria intervened to correct this wrong impression and not to answer one particular person, and certainly not to answer Speaker of Parliament Mr. Bin. Mr. Bin is a friend of Syria and we respect him and appreciate his role, but what Syria did was to correct few things which were wrongly understood by some. As for the talk that Syria supports or does not support distributing files in a certain way, I would like to say that all what Syria wants is harmony and coordination. Within the political hierarchy there is usually a kind of coordination among different elements of this hierarchy and this is normal. The conflict at any level of the political hierarchy in any state, and not just in Lebanon, will be harmful to the general performance. This means that we support harmony and consensus, and consensus is decided at the level of the head, at the level of presidents.
Q. It has been noticed that talking about the Syrian presence in Lebanon has started shortly after the death of the late President Hafez al Assad, and it escalated as soon as you assumed the office of the President, how do you explain this?
A. Any party that gives statements has its own interpretation, and we, in Syria, do not have information in order to give the interpretation. At any rate Syria addresses the issue of the Syrian presence through facts, in coordination with Lebanon and according to the facts available with the Lebanese side, and not through statements. Hence our starting point is the real fact and the available elements with Lebanon. Whatever the interpretation might be there’s a certain reality, and we have to deal with this reality and this reality is determined by both countries. There is political analysis that says there were parties in Lebanon which were against the resistance and always expressed a lack of trust in the resistance. They used to say what can the resistance do? What can the Katyousha do? Of course the triumph of the resistance defeated this approach, and therefore any one who loses in one area tries to look for victory in a different area. This is one interpretation, but we do not try to enter into different interpretations because we do not deal with our presence in Lebanon through these interpretations. Rather we deal with our presence in Lebanon through certain facts on the ground, and we leave interpretations to others. We have to differentiate between interpretation and our handling of the Syrian presence there not through statements but through its being a fact on the ground since 1976, and it is there whether there is a statement or there’s no statement. We deal with this presence through facts present in both countries.
Q. There are some people who say that president Asad is open and he will withdraw the Syrian forces from Lebanon
A. As if it is being said here that being open means withdrawing forces whereas being closed means leaving these forces there, and, I myself, find no connection between the two things. What does being open have to do with withdrawing forces? The forces did not enter there because of closeness. The forces entered there to do a certain task which is to bring reconciliation to Lebanon and upon the request of well known Lebanese parties whether from the Lebanese state or from other parties which were at the brink of suffering a drastic loss. There are minutes of meetings and recorded ones which prove that the forces entered for this purpose and in order to restore a sense of balance and that the ultimate objective was to restore national reconciliation. Then the Taif agreement was reached which consolidated this; the state and the army were reunified and the army was reconstructed. Then the issue of peace came and the simultaneity between the two tracks. The Syrian forces are there and the reality is changing, but this issue has nothing to do with openness or closeness, but it is in the interest of both Syria and Lebanon and not in the interest of Syria alone.
Q. President Bashar came after the decease of President Hafez al Asad and there are people who attribute the appearance of these statements to the possibility of the existence of a political vacuum in Syria or due to the activity of external forces with the aim of exerting pressure on Syria. What is your answer to this?
A. Politicians take all possibilities into account from the far left to the far right. Every thing is possible; we should never say that this is impossible. As we know that this possibility is there, even theoretically, it might be there on the ground. But as I have said, regardless of these possibilities and reasons, we only deal with realities on the ground and with our joint interests, and not with interpretations which do not fall within the framework of the joint Syrian Lebanese interests. For this reason Syria did not respond and did not become a party to all this controversy. But as for these statements being the result of a political vacuum or the consequence of the defeat of the party that was against the resistance every thing is possible, and there are other possibilities as well. In fact there are endless possibilities but as there’s no proof all these remain the makings of other peoples’ minds. As these are only in their minds they are outside the domain of reality and therefore outside the framework of Syrian action.
Q. Many things are said about the Lebanese file. Sometimes it is said that it is in the hands of the vice President Mr. Abdol Halim Khaddam and sometimes it is said that it is in the hands of Dr. Bashar al Asad before assuming presidency and now it is reiterated that this file is in the hands of Major General Ghazi Kanan. Where is the Lebanese file now?
A. In my first press conference I said there’s no such thing as the Lebanese file. This way of talk belittles Lebanon. The file may be there for a certain domain, a certain issue but for an entire country there can be no file. The relationship between Syria and Lebanon is a relationship between two countries with all what that entails, and, therefore, the relation between the two peoples should be at all levels. The relationship of organizations should be with organizations, the relation at the level of a state should be between officials in the two countries. What I mean is that in every field there’s a relationship between two counterparts in the two countries and this is what we see in Syria as the healthy relationship between Syria and Lebanon. But as for the saying that the file of Lebanon is in Syria and the file of Syria is in Lebanon, this is a way of putting things that are totally rejected by us. But there might be certain officials who, due to the nature of their jobs, are more engaged with this issue than others, and this is decided by the type of the relationship. We, in Syria, would like the relationship to be with all people without exception, whether they were in Syria or in Lebanon. That is why we say in Syria that all the doors are open at all levels within the government and outside the government, provided that this relation is organized and in the right framework, and put in a way that serves the interests of both peoples.
Q. Touching on this topic what is the nature of the task of Major General Kanan in Lebanon, especially as the Lebanese officials have to go to meet him at his headquarters in Anjar on their way back from Damasus.
A. Who said that ‘they have to’? He is responsible for security and reconnaissance branch in the Syrian army and part of this branch is located in Lebanon, and therefore it is normal that his task is related to the army. As for the visits they are normal. He is a person who is stationed in Lebanon and it is natural that he should establish contacts and make relationships with different Lebanese quarters, especially as we encourage relations between Syrians and Lebanese. It is also unreasonable to expect us to say to any Syrian official close your door in the face of Lebanese citizens whether they were officials or non-officials. How can we say that there’s a special relationship between Syria and Lebanon without stressing contacts among all people in both countries. It is natural that the doors of Syria, whether the doors of a Syrian official in Syria or in Lebanon, are open to any Lebanese party.
Q. The relationship between Syria and the MP Jumblat raises many questions. Sometimes he is prevented from entering Syria in an official manner and sometimes he is welcomed and soon climates change. What is the truth of the relationship between Jumblat and Damascus.
A. Officially he was not prevented from entering Syria. There was no official order preventing him or any Lebanese personality from entering Syria. Such an order is issued only for some one who is prevented for legal reasons and this does not apply to him. Hence it is not correct that he is not allowed to enter Syria. As for the relationship there is a good relationship between the MP Jumblat and many Syrian officials who have met with him. As for the country I reiterate that countries build relationships with each other, and other than that the relations are friendships. If these friendships have a purpose their purpose is to serve the state and its relations. As we have said earlier, if friendships are established with Lebanese persons they are ultimately in the interest of Lebanon.
Q. It is being said that he has asked for a meeting with you.
A. Our doors are open for all Lebanese officials and for all Lebanese personalities. We have no objection to any Lebanese personality coming to Syria. As for an audience with me this will certainly depend on the necessity and on my schedule.
Q. Some Lebanese personalities use the audience with you in order to talk about initiatives and movements and activities which serve the critics of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, what is your comment on this?
A. Our meetings with Lebanese personalities take place within the framework of listening to different opinions in Lebanon without any exception. We do not try to be close to certain personalities in Lebanon and removed from others. Rather we try to be close to all parties regardless of their stands and their positions. We do not link this point to meetings with me or with any Syrian official. Some people ask to meet with us, and we, in Syria, ask to meet with others, whether it were me or other Syrian officials. There is no set protocol regarding this point, but it is done according to necessity. We meet with every one, but as for what some of them say after the meeting it is their business and Syria has nothing to do with it.
Q. Are you going to visit Lebanon?
A. Of course there will be a visit to Lebanon and it shall be arranged with President Lahud at a convenient time, but it has not been decided yet. There is no obstacle in the way of this visit but each visit has to be prepared for and has to take place at an appropriate time.
Q. The Lebanese people expected that your first visit is going to be to Lebanon but you have reached Tehran and you have not reached Lebanon.
A. I do not agree to this criteria. The sequence of visits is not an indication of the sequence of the importance of these countries. The sequence of visits is determined by the issues under discussion and by the priorities of objectives and not according to the priority of the relationship. This does not mean that we do not enjoy strong relationship with European countries and strong relationship with the Maghreb countries and strong relationship with many Gulf states. Hence the sequence of visits only indicates the priority of issues under discussion, and sometimes issues occur which dictate unplanned visits to a certain country.
Q. Things are said about Lebanese or Palestinian military operations against Israel. Does Syria accept that?
A. This is something that Lebanon decides in coordination with the state and its institutions including the army and also the Lebanese resistance. Lebanon is the one who decides the type of resistance and the parties of resistance and Syria is committed to what Lebanon. both as a state and as a resistance, decides.
Q. Many candid and clear voices were heard in Lebanon which reject any operation against Israel launched from Lebanon. What is your stand?
A. Our stand is that of the Lebanese state and the Lebanese people the clear majority of which stresses the necessity of liberating the South to the last inch of the Lebanese territory. As for the statements you are mentioning, is there a national consetisus about these statements? We, in Syria, know that the national consensus is to liberate what is left of the South of Lebanon and the resistance, in cooperation with the state, is the one who decides the timing and the method. We, in Syria, do not enter into the details, nor do you enter into the manner. The public opinion in Syria supports the resistance. As for the few voices expressed against the resistance they do not express a national consensus or even a general trend.
Q. If you find that it is useful to launch a military action from Lebanon would you advise Lebanon to do that?
A. In fact since the early days of the resistance and until today Syria supports the resistance, and this does not mean a military support or support with weapons; rather it is a support for steadfastness for the liberation of the Lebanese territory. Since the first day of the resistance until today we have not changed our method of dealing with it. There has never been an interference in the details of work, neither regarding military operations nor regarding the timing of these operations. This is something that the resistance alone can decide. The resistance is there on Lebanese territory and able to decide the nature and timing of its work more than any other party. It was noticeable that the operations of the resistance were not linked, most of the time, neither to Israeli threats nor to Israeli provocations. and this shows that the resistance has its special methods, its vision and its assessment through which it decides the facts on the ground and makes its own decisions on that basis. Therefore it might be difficult for some to understand the method of the resistance because the facts known by the fighters are not kno n to others.
Q. You say that you are with the Lebanese state. Assuming that the Lebanese state does not want military operations now under such circumstances do you support movement on the Lebanese front in support of the Intifada?
A. The stand of the Lebanese state in supporting the resistance is a clear stand. There are different ideas about methods of resistance, and if we consider this opinion an analytical and theoretical opinion and nothing else, there is no opinion today for Syrian policy except to support Lebanon to restore its territories. Other than this the opinions are those of persons conducting dialogues. Through dialogues attempts are made to find out the best method. That is why we say that the entire performance of the resistance during different stages has first served the Lebanese interest as well as the Syrian interest as the Syrian and the Lebanese tracks are interrelated and as we support the resistance and as we are in a similar boat because. like Lebanon. we have territories under occupation. We argue that gaining a battle at any field supports other fields. We benefited from the steadfastness of Lebanon and from the liberation of the territories of Lebanon just as Lebanon was also a beneficiary from the steadfastness of Syria. Hence the resistance is the one who decides its method of work and decides the interests of others and has been fortunate in its method for many years.
Q. What about the Shaba farms as the last piece of occupied territories as far as the Lebanese are concerned: does it, from your perspective require military operations for liberating it?
A. An inch of the territory is like a meter and is like a mile. It is all occupied territory. There’s no country in the world that would say I accept to give up a certain part of my territory but I do not accept to give up another part. Territory is a question of dignity and not a matter of meters.
Q. How do you restore Shaba through diplomatic means or through resistance?
A. What is meant by diplomacy?
Q. Security Council, major countries.
A. Did diplomacy restore the South to Lebanon? We can answer through this question and leave the answer to the resistance. The resistance is the one who decided the kind of answers and the correctness of these answers. We, in Syria, do not like to judge whether this answer is right or wrong. We leave things to reality to decide. Reality has proven certain things. We do not know whether the future might prove something different. The one who is most capable to read this reality is the Lebanese resistance. Of course the resistance enjoyed the support of the Lebanese people because without the support of the Lebanese people the resistance cannot do anything no matter how many other countries may support it. The Lebanese people are most important in this equation. The Lebanese people supported the resistance and the evidence is the result, and the result was the liberation that has taken place lately.
Q. There are people who say that there are political detainees who are still in Syria and have not been handed over to Lebanon, and their families have documents which prove that they had previously visited them.
A. They might be imprisoned for ordinary crimes and this matter is subject to agreements between countries.
Q. But you have announced a list of those sentenced for ordinary crimes and the names of those whose families claim that they are still in Syria were missing.
A. What is the interest of Syria in hiding their names? Had Syria had the intention to keep any one it would have kept those who were handed over to Lebanon and they were imprisoned for crimes which put the security of the country at risk. It is possible that the objective behind this gossip is toharm reputation of Syria
Q. Some people believed that your initiative in releasing some detainees came as a result of the pressure exerted by the Maronite Church. This also coincided with the talk about the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and hence it was concluded that Syria is in crisis and it wanted to give the Christian public something to reduce the pressure exerted on her.
A. If some people believed that this was done under pressure it is their problem. What kind of pressure was exerted? We did not feel the pressures, but this came as a result of our convictions and of our confidence in Lebanese institutions. We shall follow up on all these issues in a way that will achieve the interests of both Syria and Lebanon.
Q. It seems that there are intentions to distort Syrian initiative in Lebanon.
A. Intentions may be different but Syria acts in a way that is consistent with the interests of both Syria and Lebanon. We do not respond to reaction and we do not react, but we act in a carefully studied and planned fashion.
Q. You’ve said that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is temporary, what do you mean by that exactly?
A. Let’s ask a different question. Did Syria say or did any Syrian official or any Syrian party say, since the entrance of the Syrian forces to Lebanon in 1976 that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is permanent? No one has ever said this. On the contrary the Syrian view says that the Syrian forces have entered to help Lebanon, and when the requirements of the presence of these forces are no longer existent in Lebanon these forces shall go back to Syria. I stress that this is not a new stand. Right from the beginning this was the Syrian stand and therefore we find questions such as the one you have just asked quite odd.
Q. In this case what are the circumstances that make you withdraw some forces every now and then?
A. Things on the ground change from the perspective of both the Syrian and the Lebanese leadership. These circumstances might be either civil or military that are relevant to the technical aspects of the military forces and, as a result, the two leaderships sometimes find it necessary to adjust this presence according to the new circumstances.
Q. We always hear that the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon constitute a huge financial burden on Syria, what is the cost of the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon?
A. The military is the most costly in all countries of the world, its work, training, etc, but the presence of the Syrian forces in Lebanon is not measured by cost because these forces are there for an objective that is far more important than cost?
Q. Syrian sources have mentioned that the adjustment of the presence of the Syrian forces in Lebanon had started much before any one in Lebanon began talking about the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and it was said that Damascus never moves its forces under pressure, why don’t Syria announce military movements?
A. Because the adjustment of the presence of the Syrian forces is done according to an agreement between the two leaderships. Hence, sometimes, there is a specific timetable to move these forces as was the case indeed in last April and October or the movement of the forces is done according to an arranged timetable and this is not there currently. The movement is a response to current field necessities as happened in April and October. At any rate we have not announced the movement of these forces because this is a military matter that has to be done secretly and without being announced in the media.
Q. It was circulated that there was a timetable for redeployment but that you have postponed implementing it in order not to appear as if you have carried it out under pressure.
A. The implementation was according to the circumstance and to the case at the time. There was no plan for redeployment according to a long-term timetable. Even if there were a plan in the future it will remain secret and will not be announced in the media.
Q. Don’t you believe that the beginning of the moving of forces has caused the escalation of certain voices that are asking for the withdrawal of the Syrian army?
A. We only start from our own causes, and we do not take into account any statement or any voice. Quite frankly, we are not interested in all these statements and in all these voices. I reiterate that our starting point is what the authorities, both in Syria and in Lebanon, find necessary.
Q. President Lahud said that the Syrian forces will withdraw after peace while Prime Minister Hariri said that Lebanon might need these forces after peace. What do you think of these two opinions?
A. We respond to the need of Lebanon. If the forces have a task linked to civil peace the forces would withdraw after the achievement of civil peace and after the Lebanese agree that civil peace has been achieved because Syria cannot decide that for them. The Lebanese have to decide this for themselves. The other side of the presence of the Syrian forces is linked to the Lebanese-Syrian track in the peace process and the issue of no war and no peace and the state of negotiations. This can be decided after peace. We might not be able to decide, neither in Syria nor in Lebanon, how the situation is going to be after peace. Did any one expect in the eighties that there is going to be the Taif agreement and then the Kuwiati war and then the peace negotiations and agreements? All these were new circumstances that have created a different reality. Therefore we cannot speak about certain facts before the emergence of these facts.
Q. There are people who do not object to the presence of the Syrian forces but they say that there is no need to the Syrian security presence in Lebanon. That is to say that they distinguish between the military and the security Syrian presence.
A. The relationship between Syria and Lebanon is a complementary relation. Therefore any type of this relationship, whether it was military, security, political, economic, or social or any other type of relationship, if it were not healthy it is going to be harmful. Then the important thing is not the kind of relationship but the healthiness of this relationship. The two countries are the ones who should decide what kind of relationship would serve the interests of both countries.
Q. In contrast to what is claimed by some Parliamentarians and some men of religion I did not feel during my visits to Lebanon that there is a Syrian hegemony there; how do you respond to those who claim that there is a Syrian hegemony in Lebanon?
A. Let’s ask first what is meant by the word hegemony? Does it mean that Syria dictates certain things? Does Syria prevent others from doing anything? Where is the hegemony? We hear lots of talk, but in reality many events and many big and small things have proven that Syria has nothing to do with the details of Lebanese life.