- BY:HALA JABER IN DAMASCUS
- From:The Times
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with The Sunday Times in Damascus on Thursday. Picture: Sunday Times via AP video Source: The Times
AFTER 23 months of a conflict that has ripped his country apart, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was in no mood to contemplate giving up the fight and going into exile.
“No patriotic person will think about living outside his country. I am like any other patriotic Syrian,” he said in an interview last week, when I asked if he would leave to improve the prospects for peace. In any case, he said, it was nonsense to suggest that the conflict was about the president and his future.
“If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting. Clearly this is absurd, and recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this.”
Assad spoke softly throughout the hour-long interview, his first with a western newspaper for more than a year, but he had harsh words for his opponents.
He vowed that Syria would retaliate against Israel for an airstrike on a research centre in Damascus last month.
He accused John Kerry, the American secretary of state, of wasting time by trying to ease him out of power, saying his leadership was an internal matter, “so I am not going to discuss it with anyone who is coming from abroad”.
His most withering criticism, however, was directed at Britain. Instead of pushing for peace talks, he said, David Cameron’s “naive, confused, unrealistic” government was trying to end an EU arms embargo so that the rebels could be supplied with weapons.
This, he said, would fan the flames of war at a time when an al-Qa’ida-backed element of the uprising, Jabhat al-Nusra, was already “killing, beheading, torturing and preventing children from going to school”.
“We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter,” he said, dismissing any suggestion that Britain could help to resolve the conflict.
“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries … The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony…
“How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?”
Yet Assad adopted a conciliatory tone towards the Syrian opposition, inviting it to join in a national dialogue aimed at ending the crisis.
“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,” he declared. “We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons, to terrorise people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country.”
He concluded: “We have opposition that are political entities and we have armed terrorists. We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists. We fight terrorism.”
I WAS waiting in a first-floor reception room at Al-Muhajireen palace, a relatively modest building where Assad often works, away from the grandeur of the main presidential palace, when I was told to look out of the window. An ordinary black saloon car with tinted windows was coming up the drive.
I realised it could be the president but I was surprised to see him emerging not from a rear door opened by a chauffeur, but from the driver’s seat. He was the only person in the vehicle and there was no sign of a security convoy.
It was explained to me that despite regular explosions, Assad insists on maintaining a normal lifestyle including – to his security chief’s dismay – driving to the office in the morning. He has apparently told his security men that if ever he has to wear a flak jacket to move around Damascus, he might as well step down.
We met in a room with artisanal chandeliers and window frames inlaid with mother of pearl. Through the open shutters, one could see residential buildings on the other side of a courtyard. It was a quiet morning, with a lull in the shelling of the suburbs that can be heard daily from the city centre.
More than 3 million Syrians have been driven from their homes and, as the death toll soars, barely a family in Syria has been left untouched – not even the president’s.
His brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, was blown up last July in a bombing that also killed three other senior members of the security forces. Had this made Assad fear for his own life, I wondered? Did he lie in bed at night, listening to the explosions and worrying about the security of his British wife, Asma, and their children Hafez, 10, Zein, 9 and Karim, 7?
“Can anybody be safe, or their family be safe, if the country is in danger?” he replied. “In reality, no. If your country is not safe, you cannot be safe, so instead of worrying about yourself and your family, you should worry about every citizen and every family in your country.”
The interview was timed to coincide with Kerry’s first foreign tour as secretary of state. Kerry met Syrian rebels in Rome last Thursday and announced that pounds 40m of “non-lethal” US aid would go directly to them for the first time.
“The intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal,” Assad countered, pointing out that “non-lethal” technology had been used to deadly effect in the 9/11 attacks.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, is expected to announce a package of British assistance this week.
“The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria,” Assad said. “We all know that we are now fighting al-Qa’ida, or Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies.
“This is beyond hypocritical,” he added, echoing Hague’s comment about him.
“A recent survey in the UK showed that a good proportion of the British people want to ‘keep out of Syria’ and they do not believe that the British government should send military supplies to the rebels. In spite of this, the British government continues to push the EU to lift its arms embargo on Syria and to start arming the militants with heavy weapons. That is what I call detached from reality – when you’re detached from your own public opinion.”
Today Kerry is due to visit Saudi Arabia before moving on to Qatar. Both countries actively support the rebels, who have seized large swathes of northern Syria and appear to be advancing in parts of Aleppo, the biggest commercial centre, while being beaten back in Damascus.
The best way for anyone to help Syria, Assad said, would be to “go to Saudi Arabia and Qatar and tell them: stop financing the terrorists in Syria”.
Support for the opposition could backfire now the extremists were in the ascendant, he warned. Jabhat al-Nusra has been blamed for a series of bombings, including one in Damascus 10 days ago in which the president said 300 people had been killed or injured.
The “irreversible” spread of al-Qa’ida’s ideology was even more dangerous than its armed attacks.
Describing Syria as “a melting pot of religions, sects, ethnicities and ideologies”, he added: “We should be worrying about the majority of moderate Syrians who, if we do not fight this extremism, could become the minority – at which point Syria will cease to exist. If you worry about Syria, you have to worry about the Middle East, because we are the last bastion of secularism in the region. If you worry about the Middle East, the whole world should be worried about its stability.”
WITH the conflict about to enter its third year, a change of attitude on both sides towards peace talks has brought a glimmer of hope, albeit a tiny one.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the opposition alliance Syrian National Coalition, was reported last month to have dropped his insistence on the departure of Assad before any talks could take place.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, said Khatib’s proposal had challenged the government to show it was ready for a peaceful settlement. However, rifts in the opposition have since emerged, with some saying Assad must step down.
Assad himself said he wanted to include many groups in talks. “The dialogue is about the future of Syria. We are 23 million Syrians and all of us have the right to participate in shaping the country’s future,” he said.
He criticised the West for promoting the rebel Free Syrian Army as a unified entity when in reality it consisted of “hundreds of small groups”.
I asked whether his demand for fighters to lay down their arms would prevent talks from getting under way. Had this been his plan all along, as his critics suggested, because he knew that negotiations would lead to his downfall?
The opposite was true, Assad claimed. “They say that dialogue will bring the downfall of the president and I am inviting them to the dialogue. Why don’t they then come to the dialogue to bring about downfall?”
Could there ever be a negotiated settlement while he remained in power? “We have a plan and whoever wants to deal with us can deal with us through our plan,” he replied.
Some of Assad’s opponents want to see him stand trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court as the person ultimately responsible for his army’s actions. I asked if he was troubled by this.
“Are they going to take the American and British leaders who attacked Iraq in 2003 and claimed more than half a million lives?” he retorted. “They are not going to do it. The answer is very clear.”
He was equally unhappy with the UN, which has estimated the death toll in the conflict at 70,000. The figures had been manipulated to justify outside intervention, he claimed, just as they had been in Libya before French and British airstrikes two years ago.
“You have noted those figures as though they were numbers from a spreadsheet,” he told me. “We see thousands of families who have lost loved ones and who unfortunately will grieve for many years to come. Nobody can feel this pain more than us.”
I recalled meeting a boy aged seven who had lost an arm, a leg and five members of his family in an explosion caused by the Syrian military. What could he say to such a child?
“Children are the most fragile link in any society and unfortunately they often pay the heaviest price in any conflict,” Assad replied.
“As a father of young children, I know the meaning of having a child harmed by something very simple, so if they are harmed badly or if we lose a child, it is the worst thing any family can face.
“Whenever you have conflicts, you have these painful stories that affect any society. This is the most important and the strongest incentive for us to fight terrorism.”
The fear of many in the Middle East since the conflict began has been that it would draw in surrounding countries. I asked Assad if he would retaliate against Israel for last month’s airstrikes on the research centre. Some reports have said the dead included an Iranian general working with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Assad said Syria had always retaliated for Israeli actions, “But we retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced.”
He refused to elaborate. Nor would he discuss claims that Syria has been moving its chemical weapons, apparently to prevent them from falling into the hands of extremists.
“We have never, and will never, discuss our armaments with anyone,” he said.
He denied reports that Russia, Hezbollah and Iran had sent soldiers to Syria, saying: “Russia has been very constructive, Iran has been very supportive and Hezbollah’s role is to defend Lebanon, not Syria.
“We are a country of 23 million people with a strong national army and police force. We are in no need of foreign fighters to defend our country.”
In conclusion, Assad warned of grave consequences if the West armed the rebels, directly or indirectly.
“You know the crime is not only about the victim and the criminal but also the accomplice providing support, whether it is moral or logistical support,” he said.
“Syria lies at the fault line geographically, politically, socially and ideologically. So playing with this fault line will have serious repercussions all over the Middle East.
“Any intervention will not make things better. It will only make them worse. Europe and the United States and others are going to pay the price sooner or later with the instability in this region. They do not foresee it.”
The Sunday Times