The Syrian President Bashar Assad stressed that his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan fights along with the terrorists in Syria based on his brotherhood ideology, adding “our military priority is in Idlib as its liberation means that we head towards regaining the eastern regions.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Journalist: Hello! This is “International Review” with Yevgeny Primakov. Today, we are in Damascus, in our temporary studio. His Excellency, President Bashar al-Assad, is not our guest in the studio; rather, we are his guests. Mr. President, thank you very much for receiving us and giving us the time to conduct this interview. We are happy to be with you and to see that you are in a good health in these difficult circumstances.
President Assad: You are welcome. I am very happy to receive a Russian national television station.
Question 1: Thank you very much Mr. President. Clearly, the most important topic now, besides the war on terrorism that your country is waging, are the events in the Idlib governorate, and the danger of confrontation between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey. The Turkish forces are directly supporting what is called “the opposition,” although we see in their ranks elements which belong to terrorist organizations, which are affiliated to Al Qaeda and other organizations. Turkish troops are also taking part in attacks against Syrian forces. The question is: what has changed in the relations between you and Erdogan, between Syria and Turkey? Before 2011, Erdogan used to call you “brother,” and your two families were friends. What has changed and pushed things to where they are now?
President Assad: The core of the issue is American policy. At a point in time, the United States decided that secular governments in the region were no longer able to implement the plans and roles designated to them; of course, I am referring to the countries which were allies of the United States and not those like Syria which are not. They decided to replace these regimes with Muslim Brotherhood regimes that use religion to lead the public.
In doing this, things would become easier for American plans and Western plans in general. This process of “replacement” started with the so-called Arab Spring. Of course, at the time, the only Muslim Brotherhood-led country in the region was Turkey, through Erdogan himself and his Brotherhood affiliation. Prior to this, our relations with them were good in both the political and economic fields; we even had security and military cooperation. There were no problems at all between Syria and Turkey. We didn’t do anything against them and we didn’t support any forces hostile to them. We believed them to be neighbours and brothers. But Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliation is much stronger than all of this and he returned to his original identity and built his policies with Syria according to this ideology.
It is well-known that the Muslim Brotherhood were the first organisation to endorse violence and use religion to gain power. Now, if we ask ourselves, why are Turkish soldiers being killed in Syria? What is the cause they are fighting for? What is the dispute? There is no cause, even Erdogan himself is unable to tell the Turks why he is sending his army to fight in Syria. The single reason is the Muslim Brotherhood and it has nothing to do with Turkish national interests. It is related to Erdogan’s ideology and consequently the Turkish people have to die for this ideology. That’s why he is unable to explain to the Turkish people why his soldiers are being killed in Syria.
Question 2: Is there any hope of establishing any kind of communication between Turkey and Syria gradually, at least between the military and the intelligence, and in the future, maybe, diplomatic relations?
President Assad: During the past two years, numerous intensive meetings took place between Russian and Turkish officials, and despite the Turkish aggression a few meetings were held between Syrian and Turkish security officials. Our shared objective with the Russians was to move Turkey away from supporting terrorists and bring it back to its natural place. For Syria, and for you also, Turkey is a neighbouring country. It is natural to have sound relations with a neighboring country; it is unnatural under any pretext or any circumstance to have bad relations. So, as to your question, is it possible? Of course it is, but we can’t achieve this outcome while Erdogan continues to support the terrorists. He has to stop supporting terrorism, at which point things can return to normal because there is no hostility between the two peoples. The hostility is caused by political actions or policies based on vested interests. On the level of the Syrian nation and the Turkish nation, there are neither differences nor conflicts of interests. So, yes, these relations should return to normal.
Question 3: Is this your message to the Turkish people, that there is no hostility against them? Have I understood you correctly?
President Assad: Of course, we used to describe them as brotherly people, even now, I ask the Turkish people: what is your issue with Syria? What is the issue for which a Turkish citizen deserves to die? What is the hostile act, small or large, carried out by Syria against Turkey during or before the war? There is none. There are mixed marriages and families, and daily interactions and interests between Syria and Turkey. In Turkey, there are groups of Syrian Arab origin and there are groups in Syria of Turkish origin. These interactions have existed throughout history; it is not logical that there is a dispute between us.
Question 4: Mr. President, I realize that I am talking to a head of state; nevertheless, I can’t but ask about the human dimension. This person [Erdogan] shook your hand, was your guest, you received him, and he called you a brother and a friend, etc.. Now, he allows himself to say all these things. How does that affect you emotionally?
President Assad: I have met people who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood from different countries. He is one of them from Turkey, there were some from Egypt, Palestine and others; they have all done the same thing. They used to say nice things about Syria or about their personal relationship with me, but when things change, they turn against the person. That’s how the Muslim Brotherhood are: they have no political, social, or religious ethics. For them, religion is not a form of good, it is violence; this is their principle. Erdogan is a member of the opportunistic Muslim Brotherhood and so it is normal for him to do what he has done. The lack of clarity and endless lying are part of their nature.
Question 5: The war in your country has been going on for nine years. It is twice as long as the World War II, the Great Patriotic War, and soon we will mark the 75th anniversary of our victory in it, which is a very important event for Russia. What strength does the Syrian people store that enables them to survive and triumph and avoid despair? What is the secret? Is it an internal strength, or something else? Or is it simply that you have better weapons?
President Assad: There are several factors which should be considered. The fact that we are a small country, means these factors make us a strong country in this war. First and foremost, national awareness and public opinion. Without the widespread awareness of the Syrian people that what is happening is the result of a Western conspiracy against their country, Syria might have perished or been destroyed very quickly. This popular realization produced a national unity despite different political leanings or different cultural and social affiliations – ethnic, religious or sectarian groups. This awareness created unity with the state in confronting terrorism; this is a very important factor.
The second factor is the Syrian people’s legendary capacity for sacrifice, which we have witnessed primarily through the Syrian Arab Army. Under normal circumstances, one would believe that these sacrifices can only be found in movies or novels, while in fact they were apparent in every battle and this is what protected the country.
In addition to the sacrifices of the army, the people themselves sacrificed. They have been living in extremely difficult circumstances: continuous shelling, sanctions and bad economic conditions. Nevertheless, the people remained steadfast with their country.
The third factor is the public sector, which has played an important role in keeping the state together. In the worst of circumstances, salaries continued to be paid, schools kept running and daily essential services were provided to citizens. Bottom line services continued to be provided so that life continues.
In addition to these factors, there is the fact that our friends have supported us, particularly Russia and Iran. They have supported us politically, militarily, and economically. All these factors together have helped Syria remain steadfast up until now.
Question 6: If you don’t mind, I’ll dwell on these factors for more details, and we will start with the Syrian society and what you have said about its diverse culture and tolerance among its different ethnic, cultural and religious groups. The extremist terrorists have struck a severe blow to this Syrian characteristic by promoting extremist demands and an extremist ideology. Yesterday, we were in the Old City of Damascus, and we couldn’t imagine what the situation would be like if the black flag of the caliphate appeared in Damascus, something which can only be imagined with horror. To what extent is Syria ready to rebuild itself as a multicultural state, tolerant, secular, etc.?
President Assad: What I’m about to say may sound exaggerated, but by nature I speak in real terms and do not like exaggeration. In actual fact, Syrian society today in terms of coherence and the social integration of its different segments, is better than it was before the war. This is for a simple reason: war is a very important lesson to any society, a lesson that extremism is destructive and that not accepting the other is dangerous. As a result, these segments within our society came together.
If you go to the Old City or to any area under government control, you will not see this problem at all. On the contrary, as I mentioned, things are better than before. The problem is in the areas which were outside government control. That’s why I’m not concerned at all in this regard, despite the attempted Western narrative to show that the war in Syria is between sects, which is not true. A war between sects means that you come today to this area and find one colour, and in another area you find another colour, and in another place a third and a fourth colour; this is not the case. You will see all the colours of Syria, without exception, in the state-controlled areas. Whereas in the terrorist-controlled areas, they are not looking for a colour, but for parts of one colour, which is the extremist colour. This is because only extremists at the far end of extremism could live with them and that is why a large number of people fled the terrorist-controlled areas to state-controlled areas. That is why I’m not concerned at all in this regard. The challenge, however, will be in the areas which were occupied by the terrorists.
Question 7: This raises the question of the possibility of granting an amnesty. There are many people who were misled by the propaganda of the terrorists and extremists. Some of them committed crimes. Others were members of armed groups which committed terrorist acts. But there are those who did not carry weapons, or carried them without killing people. What are the grounds on which the government can reach out to them? And can there be compromises through which such people can be forgiven? This is a very important moral question. And in addition to the moral dimension, there are legal aspects as to resolving their status and integrating them in society, and maybe in the army as well.
President Assad: In this type of war, amnesty must be a core element of domestic policy. We cannot restore stability if we do not grant amnesty for the mistakes that have been made. From the very beginning of the war, we have regularly enacted amnesty decrees pardoning all those who acted against the national interest. In the areas which were controlled by the militants, we have conducted what we call local reconciliations that have resulted in the state legally pardoning individuals; all those who hand in their weapons, receive amnesty provided that they return to their normal civil life under the authority of the state and the rule of law. This process has been very successful and restored stability to a large number of areas, and we are continuing to implement this policy.
There are very limited cases which cannot be granted amnesty, for example those who committed criminal acts and premeditatedly killed large numbers of people; most of these are terrorist leaders. However, in terms of the broader situation, I believe that most people want to return to the state, because a large number of them who carried weapons were actually forced to do so. They had no choice: either you carry weapons or you are killed. These people are not necessarily extremists. They do not have a terrorist past. They are ordinary people who were forced to carry weapons.
Similarly, there are those who had to take political or public positions in the media in favour of the terrorists for the same reasons, we know this for a fact. That’s why I believe that most of these people do support the state and were cooperating and communicating with us throughout. So, I fully agree with you, we must continue providing amnesty and we must continue with this process in the new areas we liberate, especially since we want most Syrians inside and outside Syria to return to their country.
Question 8: Now, we will talk about rebuilding the state, but the state always consists of people. When we talk about terrorists, we either force them to drop their weapons or persuade them to drop them and go back to their senses. Conversely, there are those who have their perceptions of justice; and you certainly meet state officials, whether in the security or police agencies, who have to reach out and resolve the status of those who became terrorists on the other side. These officials might resent that and find it difficult to accept. For instance, if I see this individual who used to aim his weapon at me living with me now on the same street and buying bread from the same bakery as I do, how should I behave? What do you say to state supporters who are not always prepared to accept such an amnesty or such an act of forgiveness?
President Assad: At the beginning of the war we used to see such cases. I recall when I passed the first amnesty decree, many Syrians resented it not only within the government, but also the broader public because some may have lost a family member from the terrorism. In the beginning, it was not easy to tell them that we will grant amnesty in order to restore stability. However, this was the case for the first few months only. Today, if you ask anybody or at least those who support the state, regardless of whether they work in the government or not, this is now accepted because they have seen the results. In fact, in many cases they are the ones pushing for an amnesty and a settlement, which helps greatly. So, there are no longer different viewpoints, because the facts on the ground have shown that this is the right thing to do and that it is good for Syria.
Question 9: As to the situation on the ground, I’ll not talk about who controls this or that area, because the situation on the ground is fluid and ever-changing and should be left to the military. But it is clear now that the state has restored large areas in southern Idlib governorate. Here, peaceful life will return, as happened in other areas, in Eastern Ghouta, Deir Ezzor, and the other areas liberated previously. What will the state do when it goes into the liberated areas? Where will it start its work? And what is the most important aspect to restoring peaceful life?
President Assad: In many of the areas we have liberated, there are no civilians since most had left when the terrorists arrived. The first thing we do is to restore the infrastructure in order to enable the local population to return. The first thing they need is electricity, water, roads, police, municipalities, and other services. They need all these service providers; this is the first challenge. The second, which is equally important, is rebuilding schools so that they are able to receive students. If the infrastructure is available and I can’t send my children to school, what’s the point, it means I can’t go back to this area. So, schools and health services are fundamental after the exit of terrorists and the restoration of security. Later, of course, we engage with the local community to identify who was involved with the terrorists through various actions. As I mentioned earlier, this is an important step towards reconciliation and resolving the status of these people in order to restore normal life to the city.
Question 10: What are the difficulties which emerge during this process? And are there sleeper cells which undermine the process of reconstruction? What are the problems facing you?
President Assad: When I mentioned that the pardons and reconciliations have been successful, this doesn’t mean that the success was a hundred percent; nothing is perfect. Some of these people still have terrorist leanings and extremist ideology, and are still cooperating with extremist groups in other areas and carrying out terrorist acts. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of explosive devices planted in different places or under cars. These terrorist acts have claimed the lives of many victims. However, this doesn’t mean that we stop the process of reconciliations, but rather we need to hunt down these sleeper cells. We have been able to arrest a large number of them, but there are others that are still active. One sleeper cell might carry out a number of acts giving the impression that a full organisation exists. Whereas in fact it is one cell made up of a group of individuals and by arresting them you are able to restore safety and security. However, this challenge will remain, because terrorism still exists in Syria and outside support in the form of weapons and money is still at large. Therefore, we do not expect to eliminate these sleeper cells in the foreseeable future. We will continue to eliminate cells and others will appear, until things return to normal in Syria.
Question 11: Mr. President, in two months’ time, if I’m not mistaken, the country will hold parliamentary elections, in these difficult circumstances. How difficult will that be? Or, would they proceed according to plan, and nothing will stop or obstruct them?
President Assad: There is a constitution and we are governed by it. We do not give in to Western threats or Western wishes, and we do not consider any factor other than the constitution. The issue of postponing constitutional deadlines, whether for presidential or parliamentary elections, was raised with us several times and we refused to do so during the war. Parliamentary elections will be held in a few months’ and we will proceed according to the constitutional agenda regardless of anything else.
Question 12: We talked about the domestic situation, let’s now talk about the outer environment. The Syrian Arab Republic has been subjected since 2011 to tightly-enforced isolation, not only by the Americans and the Europeans, which was expected, but also by the Arab League and its member states, including the Arab Gulf states. We know that the UAE embassy was reopened, and that Oman did not close its embassy and continued to work as usual. Do you see a positive change on the part of the Arab world, or is the situation still as it was, and that isolation persists? And what are the prospects of your contacts with the European Union? I’ll not ask about the Americans, for everything regarding them is unfortunately clear.
President Assad: Most Arab countries have maintained their relations with Syria, but not publicly for fear of pressure. These countries have expressed their support for Syria and their wishes for us to defeat terrorism. However, Western pressure and American in particular, was severe on these countries to remain distant and not to open their embassies in Syria, particularly the Gulf states. Europe however, is completely different. In fact, for us, Europe for more than two decades and even before this war, has been absent on the global political arena. Europe has ceased to exist since 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq. Europe surrendered completely to the United States and its role was limited to implementing what it was charged with by the American administration.
So, whether they communicate with us or not, the result is the same. Whether they open embassies or not, there is no value. We have met with a number of security officials from most European countries and they have been reasonable but they are unable to change course. Some have frankly said, “we are unable to change, our politicians cannot change their policies because the European policy is linked to the American policy.” They climbed the tree and are simply unable to come down. That’s why we do not waste our time talking about a European role and European policy. The master is the American. We can talk about the Americans and this automatically includes the Europeans.
But in answer to your question, yes, there is a change. There are clear convictions that this war has not achieved what those countries, or some of the colonialist countries wanted, that the Syrian people have paid the price, that stability has paid the price and now the Europeans are paying the price. The problem of refugees in Europe is huge, but they will not change in the near future. This is my conviction.
Question 13: Now, Turkey is blackmailing Europe by using the migrants. And this is what Erdogan is doing right now.
President Assad: Turkey started sending the second wave of refugees to Europe as a form of blackmail. Erdogan had threatened that he would send refugees. Yesterday, there were videos on various media outlets about the beginning of a migrant movement towards Europe.
Question 14: In one of your answers, you touched on the relation with Russia. We consider it a relation of partnership. But this relation went through difficult years when Russia limited its presence in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Many people saw that as a betrayal, and that Russia turned its back on its old allies and partners. Now, how do you describe these relations which have been strengthened naturally during nine years of war? Since our aforementioned opponents, including the Europeans and the Americans, who are “evil tongues” as we say in Russia, claim that Syria is under Russian control. Is that true in reality. For our part, we look at this relation as a partnership and an alliance.
President Assad: Our relations with you span more than six decades; this is not a short period of time and it covers several generations. We know each other very well and this relationship has been through various experiences. Through the different circumstances, including the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, our relations with Russia have always been based on mutual respect, a peer-to-peer relationship. We have never felt at any time, even during this war, that Russia is trying to impose its views on us. They have always treated us with respect; even when we differed, they respected the views of the Syrian government. This is a general rule that has governed the past decades and hasn’t changed because it is based on Russian customs, traditions, and perspectives. So, on a bilateral level the relationship between Syria and Russia is clearly a partnership, particularly now after the war, this partnership has become stronger and more reliable.
However, if we wanted to view our relationship with Russia from a different perspective, which is Russia’s international role, the issue is different. Today, many small countries and even countries of medium strength around the world, look towards Russia and rely to a large extent on its role, because it is Russia’s duty today to restore international balance to the global arena. The presence of the Russian military base in Syria is not only aimed at fighting terrorism but also at creating an international political balance in the Security Council, as well as a military balance in different areas with a view of restoring the Russian role. Restoring this role is in the interest of all states, including Syria and other small and medium-sized countries as I mentioned. Therefore, we view this relationship from two perspectives: a partnership on the bilateral level and a relationship based on this international role, which we hope will continue to increase as has been the case since President Putin came to power in 2000 and restored Russia’s position.
Question 15: Now we are talking about military and political support. What about the economy? Going back to rebuilding Syria, are there large Russian – or non-Russian – projects which help in reconstruction? Is there a state or a company which is prepared to come and invest in the Syrian economy without fear of sanctions or political problems caused by the United States and Europe? For instance, there used to be a flourishing pharmaceutical industry in Aleppo, which used to export its products throughout the Middle East, and you, as a doctor, know that. Are there any ideas to restore industrial production in the pharmaceutical field or other fields? And to what extent the lack of resources will affect these economic projects, considering that oil is now outside state control and is controlled by a power, which came from beyond the Atlantic and built its bases there under the pretext of protecting oil?
President Assad: When we built our infrastructure in Syria in the 1970s and the 1980s, we did not have oil at that time. It was built with Syrian money and with Syrian capabilities. So, we know we have the capabilities and can provide the resources. There is a lot of Syrian capital within Syria and mostly abroad and should most certainly take part in this process.
Since 2018, there has been a great interest from big companies outside of Syria – Arab and non-Arab, to participate in the reconstruction. However, what’s happening is that the Americans are applying huge pressure and threatening individuals and companies alike; this has no doubt frightened some of these companies. This is happening even with regard to Russian companies. There are several Russian companies which want to invest in Syria but fear taking any step. Chinese companies have the same problem.
However, every problem has a solution. Most recently, a number of large international companies have started to come to Syria using different methods which enable them to evade the sanctions. So, there is a possibility now for these companies to work in Syria without facing sanctions. Of course, I cannot discuss these methods, but we have started to see a return of foreign investment. It is true that the movement is slow, but I believe it is a good start – a promising start, to support the reconstruction process which we have started. We did not wait; we have begun in some areas and in order to expand there must be a larger number of companies and investments.