Journalist | Writer | Analyst
At 42, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is the youngest head of state in West Asia and also one of its most influential. On the eve of his visit to India, he spoke exclusively to The Hindu about Syria’s relations with Israel and Lebanon, U.S. allegations about a clandestine nuclear programme and his hopes of India playing a more important role in bringing peace to the region. Excerpts:
12 June 2008
‘India can bring balance to Middle East peace process’
Siddharth Varadarajan: Indirect talks are going on between Syria and Israel through Turkey. Israel is occupying the Golan Heights – which is Syrian territory — and obviously Syria wants it back. But what can you give Israel in return?
President Bashar al-Assad: First, as you said, Syrian land is occupied by Israel so they have to give it back. We don’t have something to give but we have something to achieve together, which is peace. So, if both sides achieve a certain treaty, including giving back the Golan Heights, this means achieving peace. The other thing besides the land is discussing normal relations, water, security arrangements and all these details that are related to the concept of peace. This is something we achieve together, but Israel has the land and should give it back.
But it is said Israel wants Syria to abandon its friends in the region – Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran.
The Israelis have been talking about negotiations without pre-conditions. They cannot ask for conditions and they have not either. Second, Hamas is related to the Palestinian track and we are not responsible for that track. Hizbollah is part of the Lebanese track and we are not in Lebanon today. We are only talking about the Syrian track.
What is the Israeli compulsion to talk peace with you at this time?
The Israelis used to think that with time they are going to be stronger and any opposition to their policies will be weaker, but actually what happened was the opposite. Now, the Israelis learned that without peace they cannot live safely and Israel cannot be safe. I think this is true especially after the war on Lebanon and because of the result of that war inside the Israeli society; this is the main incentive for the Israelis to move toward peace.
You are talking peace barely months after Israel bombed your territory at al-Kibar in September, claiming they targeted a secret nuclear facility. Did you raise this with them?
No. Of course, we have not met because it is an indirect negotiation. But the question is why did they announce [the bombing] seven months after the [event]? Why did they not announce it at that time in order to send a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to see what is happening? Let me put it this way: they said there was a [nuclear] facility that they bombed and now they have the evidence. How could they not have had this evidence seven months ago? Why do they have the evidence today? Because after seven months you can say that Syria built that facility and now it is demolished and they have rebuilt it in a different way — this is their excuse! While if they gave this alleged evidence at that time, their story would not have been proved genuine or credible. We said that time that this is evidence for us that the Israelis are not serious about peace. That’s why we talked about indirect negotiations. It is like probing the intention of the Israeli side: are they serious in giving back the Golan Heights or is it just a tactic for internal Israeli politics. That’s why we did not raise the issue and we did not have the chance to meet them anyway. But we raised it with the IAEA.
So what was the nature of that facility?
It is a military facility and it is not usual to announce what the content of a military facility is. But it is not nuclear. How could it be nuclear? Where is the radiation? Where is the protection for this facility? How can you build such a facility under the daily watch of satellites?
Why did the Israelis bomb it?
I think because they were suspicious about its content and could not know. I cannot answer on their behalf; you should ask them. I think they had wrong information; they were entrapped. How could they explain to the Israelis and the rest of the world why they bombed it? This is where they created a story of a nuclear facility. In the beginning, they said that this is a site for bringing armaments to Hizbollah, but how? It is in the middle of Syria. You have Turkey in the north and Iraq in the east. How can you bring arms to Hizbollah? From Turkey, or from Iraq where the Americans operate? This is not logical. Then … I think a month ago, they said it is nuclear. So, it was clear that they did not have any evidence it was a nuclear site; they created this evidence through manipulation on the computer that this is a copy of the North Korean plants.
So the photographic and video evidence indicating this was a plutonium-producing reactor made with North Korean help is fabricated?
100 per cent fabricated.
One of the reasons the world got a little suspicious is that the Syrians moved quickly to clean up the site. What was the need for that? You could have been proactive even in September last year to invite the international community to see what the Israelis did.
First, they did not say in the beginning that it was a nuclear site. Second, it was attacked by missiles; you do not keep [the facility] as it is, so we rebuilt it. A few days after the attack, we started rebuilding the site. It is normal to remove the debris.
You’ve invited the IAEA to visit the site. The U.S. has said al-Kibar is not enough and the inspectors should be allowed to visit other sites. What is your response?
Syria has an agreement with the IAEA and every procedure implemented here should be according to this treaty. You cannot just come and visit any place according to intelligence information because everyday they may come to the IAEA and say, ‘We have this information’. So, it is a never-ending problem… Actually, the Americans did not bring any convincing evidence [to the IAEA] about [the bombed facility] being a suspicious place but we said we have an interest in bringing the Agency to this site. Talking about other sites is not within the purview of the agreement. We have to be very precise; it is not a political but technical issue. We have a Nuclear Commission that has an agreement with them and they work within this agreement.
Turning to Lebanon, the Doha Accord signed last month is being seen as a major victory not just for the different Lebanese political players but also for Syria’s policy. Do you think Doha and the new coalition agreement mark the opening of a new chapter in Syrian-Lebanese relations?
Definitely, yes. This is so because Syria protected itself; when you have chaos, conflict and civil war in Lebanon, we are affected directly. This is the first victory. The second victory is that many Lebanese and many officials around the world used to accuse Syria of creating problems in Lebanon. But the Doha Accord, which was supported directly by us, was stark proof that Syria is working in the other direction.
Internally, Syria is strongly secular and you oppose sectarian politics in your country. Yet, your best friends in the region all come from sectarian backgrounds like Hamas, Hizbollah and even the Iranians. Is this a problem for you?
Actually in politics, you have to be pragmatic; the first question you have to ask is who is effective in our region. You do not ask who is like you or who is not. Hamas is effective and important in Palestine. Hizbollah is a very important party in Lebanon, and Iran is a very important country in the region. Without those players, you cannot have stability, you cannot have any solution and you cannot reach anything you are looking for. So, whether you like it or not, or whether you agree or disagree, you have to deal with them. You do not say, like this [U.S.] administration, ‘black and white’, ‘evil and good’ and things like this. If you want to solve problems, you have to deal with the players.
Are you confident the UN tribunal being set up in The Hague to deal with the assassination of [the former Lebanese President] Rafik Hariri — where some have blamed Syria — will function objectively?
If it is not politicized, we should say it is trustworthy and it should solve the problem and [establish] who are the criminals. But usually, like any other investigation, you should have forensic evidence in order to have this tribunal, and that is why they said they are going to extend the mission of the delegation in Lebanon. This means things are moving in the right way so far. We hope this tribunal will be very professional and not politicized.
But, based on [the first U.N. report by the German prosecutor Detlev] Mehlis, do you fear an attempt to frame Syria?
I think the reports that came after Mehlis have refuted completely what he said. That is why we feel relaxed and everything is going on in a professional way.
So, the Syrian authorities will fully cooperate once the tribunal gets underway?
Definitely, and [the U.N.] mentioned many times in their reports that Syria’s cooperation was satisfactory.
What happens if the tribunal asks for Syrian citizens to be sent there for trial?
Usually they should have an agreement, like with Lebanon when they formed the tribunal. There was an agreement between the Lebanese government and the UN and now they must have another agreement with Syria because we have our sovereignty and our judicial system which we will not replace by another one whatsoever.
Turning to your forthcoming visit to India, what are you expectations? Your father, Hafez al-Assad, came to Delhi in 1978.
Now we are talking about a different India! We are talking about the rise of India. With the rise of India and China we have a different Asia and a different world. We have, let us say, more hopes than we had in the past. Maybe the policies of India at that time were different as part of the non-aligned movement. At that time, we used to look at India as a closer country, but now we see it a big country, an important country; so we have different hopes but in the same way. The question is what role can India play in the world, especially regarding our issues, like the peace issue, the Iraq and Palestine issues and all these problems. How can we cooperate on these? India and China should play a role with other countries in making a balance that we have missed for almost 20 years, because this happened in the late 1980s, even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So, this is from the political point of view.
Everybody knows about the huge development that you have in India, especially in the IT field. I am interested in this because I was head of the Syrian Computer Society, which is a Syrian NGO, before I became President. And I think that developing countries cannot achieve much in the field of hardware, but they can achieve a lot in software because it is about the brains and we have the brains. We just need to provide the appropriate environment to develop, and this is where India can help. Third, it is about bilateral relations, about investment, how we can attract Indian investment based on the stability in Syria, based on the geo-political position and the geographical position on the Mediterranean and among the Arab countries. So this is what we hope from the visit. Mainly, according to our circumstances, the reason is political.
So you think if India were to involve itself in the peace process, this could bring about a balance?
Yes, because it has two aspects. You can play a direct role between the two sides, Syria and Israel, and the Palestinians and Israel. That will make the region more stable, and that will affect India itself in the long run and the world at large, especially Asia. Second, it’s about the role you can play through your weight as India, a big country, in dialoguing with other powers — the U.S., Europe, your region – about how the Middle East can be made more stable.
Recently [Deputy Prime Minister Shaul] Mofaz in Israel raised the issue of the need to take military action against Iran. Is this something you worry about?
This is the biggest mistake anyone could make in Iran, whether Israel or the US. I think that the repercussions of this mistake are going to be huge and last for decades. They get angry when Ahmadinejad says that Israel is going to disappear. So, why do they have the right to say they are going to attack Iran? They are using the same language. Iran said many times that this is a peaceful nuclear programme, and as long as they follow international law, why be against them? The problem with some Europeans and with the American administration is that they don’t want Iran to have what they have the right to have: the fuel. There is no international law which says you cannot have [nuclear] fuel. This is the problem; and it is a national issue in Iran. So, what Mofaz said will make the situation for Israel before the rest of the world and the region worse.
For the complete transcript, see next post.