Fort Russ – 6th December, 2015
President Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he said Britain and France have neither the will nor the vision on how to defeat terrorism and their airstrikes against ISIS will yield no results, but will rather be illegal and harmful in that they will help in spreading terrorism. The full transcript is below.
Question 1: Thank you for
seeing us Mr President. As you know, the British government today will be
voting on whether it will join the coalition airstrikes against ISIS. Is
Britain right to join airstrikes against ISIS in Syria? And do you welcome its
involvement; and will it make things worse or not make a change?
President Assad: If I want
to let’s say, evaluate a book, I cannot take or single out a phrase from that
book to evaluate the whole book. I have to look at the headlines, then
the titles of the chapters and then we can discuss the rest of the book.
So, what we are talking about is only an isolated phrase. If we
want to go back to the headline, it is “the will to fight terrorism.” We
know from the very beginning that Britain and France were the spearheads in
supporting the terrorists in Syria, from the very beginning of the conflict.
We know that they don’t have that will, even if we want to go back to the
chapter on military participation with the coalition, it has to be
comprehensive, it has to be from the air, from the ground, to have cooperation
with the troops on the ground, the national troops for the interference or
participation to be legal. It is legal only when the participation is in
cooperation with the legitimate government in Syria. So, I would say they
don’t have the will and they don’t have the vision on how to defeat terrorism.
And if you want to evaluate, let’s
evaluate from the facts. Let’s go back to the reality on the ground.
Since that coalition started its operation a year or so, what was the
result? ISIS and al-Nusra and other like-minded organizations or groups, were
expanding, expanding freely. What was the situation after the Russians
participated in fighting terrorism directly? ISIS and al-Nusra started
shrinking. So I would say, first they will not give any results.
Second, it will be harmful and illegal, and it will support terrorism as
what happened after the coalition started its operation a year or so, because
this is like a cancer. You cannot cut the cancer. You have to
extract it. This kind of operation is like cutting the cancer that will
make it spread in the body faster.
Question 2: Are you saying,
just to clarify two things, are you saying that the British, if the British
join the intervention, that includes also the other coalition, with that
intervention you see that is illegitimate from an international-law
President Assad: Definitely,
definitely, we are a sovereign country. Look at the Russians, when they
wanted to make this alliance against terrorism, the first thing they did was
they started discussions with the Syrian government before anyone else.
Then they started discussing the same issue with other governments.
Then they came. So, this is the legal way to combat any terrorist
around the world.
Britain and France helped in the
rise of ISIS and al-Nusra in this region
Question 3: You say that
France and Britain are responsible for the rise of terrorism here. But they
were not responsible for the rise of ISIS, for example, is not that a little
bit a harsh accusation?
President Assad: Let’s start from
what Blair said. He said that invading Iraq led to the rise of ISIS.
And we know that ISIS started publically, announcing itself as a state in
Iraq in 2006, and the leader was Abu Mosaab al-Zerqawi. He was killed by
American strikes; and they announced that they killed him. So, they know
he existed and they know that IS in Iraq at that time had existed; and that it
moved to Syria after the beginning of conflict in Syria because of the chaos
that happened. So, they confess. British officials confessed,
mainly Blair; and the reality is telling, that they helped in the rise of ISIS
and al-Nusra in this region.
Question 4: In your view,
does al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, pose an equal or a greater
long-term threat to the West than ISIS? And as such, is Britain’s Prime
Minister, Cameron, going after the wrong enemy? I.e. he is going after ISIS
instead of going after al-Nusra.
President Assad: The whole
question is about the structure, and the problem is not about the structure of
the organization. It is about their ideology. They do not base
their actions on the structure, they base them on their dark, Wahhabi deviated
ideology. So, if we want to evaluate these two, the difference between
the two, there is no difference because they have the same ideology. This
is one aspect. The other aspect, if we want to talk about their
grassroots, their followers, their members, you cannot have this distinction,
because they move from one organization or one group to another. And that
is why sometimes they fight with each other, for their vested interests, on a
local and small scale. But in reality they are cooperating with each
other on every level. So, you cannot tell which is more dangerous because
this is one mentality. It is like if you say the first one is al-Qaida
and the second one is al-Qaida. The difference is the label, and maybe
some other trivial things.
Question 5: Last week, a key
part of Cameron’s argument for extending UK airstrikes to Syria was a number
that he used – 70 thousand moderate rebels – that he mentioned “don’t belong to
extremist groups”, but are already on the ground, who the west can use to help
them in the fight of ISIS. As far as you know, which groups are included in the
70 thousand? Are you aware of 70 thousand moderate rebels in Syria?
President Assad: Let me be frank
and blunt about this. This is a new episode in a long series of David
Cameron’s classical farce, to be very frank. This is not acceptable.
Where are they? Where are the 70 thousand moderates that he is
talking about? That is what they always talk about: moderate groups in
Syria. This is a farce based on offering the public factoids instead of
The Russians have been asking,
since the beginning of their participation two months ago. They have
said: where are those moderates? No one gave them an answer.
Actually, since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, there were no
moderate militants in Syria. All of them were extremists. And in
order not to say I am just giving excuses and so on, go back to the internet,
go back to the social networking sites. They uploaded their atrocities’
videos and pictures, with their faces and their rhetoric. They use
swords, they do beheadings; they ate the heart of a dismembered innocent person
and so on.
And you know, the confession of a
criminal is the incontrovertible fact. So, those are the 70 thousand
moderates he is taking about. It is like if we describe the terrorists
who committed the attack in Paris recently, and before that in Charlie Hebdo,
and before that in the UK nearly ten years ago, and in Spain before that, and
the 11th of September in New York, to describe them as moderate opposition.
That is not accepted anywhere in this world; and there is no 70 thousand,
there is no 7 thousand, he does not have, maybe now ten of those.
Question 6: Not even the
Kurds and the FSA for example, the free Syrian army?
President Assad: The Kurds are
fighting the terrorists with the Syrian army, in the same areas.
Question 7: But they are
also being supported and armed and trained and backed by the Americans to also
launch, to fight …
President Assad: Mainly by
the Syrian army, and we have the documents. We sent them armaments,
because they are Syrian citizens, and they want to fight terrorism. We do
the same with many other groups in Syria, because you cannot send the army to
every part of Syria. So, it is not only the Kurds. Many other Syrians
are doing the same.
Question 8: U.S. Secretary of
state John Kerry said last Friday that the Syrian government could cooperate
with the opposition forces against the ISIS even if president Assad is still in
office, but he said that this would be so difficult if the opposition fighters,
who have been fighting the Syrian president, don’t have a faith that the Syrian
president will eventually leave power.
Kerry also said that concerning
the timing of leaving office, the answer is it is not obvious whether he will
have to leave.
Meanwhile, the French Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Progres Newspaper on Saturday that he no longer
believes that President Assad’s departure is essential to any political
transition in Syria, adding that the political transition does not mean that
President Assad should step down before it but there should be future
My question: Do you intend to
complete your presidential term until 2021 or do you expect a referendum or
presidential elections prior to that date? And if so, when can these elections
be held? And what can make you decide to hold them? And if they are held, is it
certain that you will be running for election? What can influence your
President Assad: The answer
depends on the context of the question. If it is related to a settlement in
Syria, then early elections have nothing to do with ending the conflict. This
can only happen by fighting terrorists and ceasing Western and regional support
for terrorists…Early elections will only be held as part of a comprehensive
dialogue about future by the political powers and the civil society groups in
Thus, it is not about the will of
the President, but rather the will of the Syrian people…It is about a political
process. If this process is agreed on, then I have the right to run for
elections like any other Syrian citizen…My decision in this case will be based
on my ability to deliver on my commitments…and on whether I have the support of
the Syrian people or not….Anyway, It is early to talk about this, because as
you know, this process was not agreed upon yet.
Question 9: Do you think
ISIS can be defeated by airstrikes alone?
You cannot defeat ISIS through
airstrikes alone without cooperation with forces on the ground
President Assad: Did the
coalition defeat them by airstrikes during the last year or so? It
didn’t. Did the Americans achieve anything from the airstrikes in
Afghanistan? They achieved nothing. Did they achieve anything in
Iraq since the invasion in 2003? Nothing. You cannot defeat ISIS
through airstrikes alone, without cooperation with forces on the ground.
You cannot defeat them if you do not have buy-in from the general public
and the government. They cannot defeat ISIS by airstrikes; they are going
to fail again. The reality is telling.
Question 10: If the
international coalition refuses, as it has so far, to coordinate with the
Syrian Army, or with the local troops on the ground, what is your next plan?
I mean do you have a plan B beyond what is going on? How do you
plan to end this war?
President Assad: This
coalition is illusive, it’s virtual, because it has not made any achievements
in fighting terrorism on the ground in Syria. Since an illusion doesn’t
exist, let’s not waste time with the ‘before and after.’ From the very
beginning we started fighting terrorism irrespective of any global or world
powers. Whoever wants to join us is welcome, and whether they join us or
not, we are going to continue. This is our plan. It is the only plan we
have and we will not change it.
Question 11: Are you calling
on them to ask the Syrian government to coordinate and cooperate with the
Syrian army and the Syrian air force in the fight against terrorists?
President Assad: We are very
realistic. We know that they are not going to do so and that they don’t
have the will. This is more about international law than anything else.
Is it possible that western governments, or regimes, don’t know the
basics of international law, that they don’t understand the meaning of a
sovereign state or that they haven’t read the UN Charter? They have no
respect for international law and we didn’t ask for their cooperation.
Question 12: But would you
like them to?
President Assad: If they are
ready – serious and genuine – to fight terrorism, we welcome any country or
government, any political effort. In that regard we are not radical, we
are pragmatic. Ultimately, we want to resolve the situation in Syria and
prevent further bloodshed. That is our mission. So, it’s not about
love or hate, accepting or not, it is about reality. Are they truly ready
to help us fight terrorism, to stop terrorists coming into Syria through their
surrogate governments in our region, or not? That is the real question.
If they are ready, we will welcome them. This is not personal.
Question 13: Do you think it
is possible for you, in Syria, and for your allies – Russia, Iran, Hezbollah
and other allies – to defeat ISIS militarily; and if so, how long do you think
it might take?
President Assad: The answer
is based on two factors: our capabilities on the one hand, and the support the
terrorists receive on the other. From our perspective, if you were to
remove the support these groups get from various countries in our region and
the West in general, it will take a matter of months to achieve our mission.
It is not very complicated, the solution is very clear to us.
However, these groups have unlimited support from these countries, which
makes the situation drag on, makes it more complicated and harder to resolve.
This means our mission will be achieved at a much higher price, which
will ultimately be paid by Syrians.
Question 14: But there has
already been a high price: over 200,000 people have been killed.
President Assad: You are
right, and that is a consequence of the support I referred to.
Question 15: But a lot of it
is also blamed on the Syrian government and the Syrian use of force, sometimes
indiscriminate or unnecessary force in certain areas that has brought about a
large number of people killed. How do you respond to that?
President Assad: First, all
wars are bad. There is no such thing as a good war. In every war
there are always too many innocent casualties. These are only avoidable
by bringing that war to an end. So it is self-evident that wars anywhere
in the world will result in loss of life. But the rhetoric that has been
repeated in the West for a long time ignores the fact that from day one
terrorists were killing innocent people, it also ignores that fact that many of
the people killed were supporters of the government and not vice versa.
As a government, our only countermeasure against terrorists is to fight
them. There is no other choice. We cannot stop fighting the
terrorists who kill civilians for fear of being accused by the West of using
Question 16: Let us talk about the
role of Russia. How important has the role of Russia been? Was
Syria about to fall had Russia not intervened when it did at the time?
Russia and Iran’s support played
important part in Syria’s steadfastness against terrorism
President Assad: The Russian role
is very important. It has had a significant impact on both the military
and political arena in Syria. But to say that without this role, the
government or the state would have collapsed, is hypothetical. Since the
very beginning of the conflict in Syria, there were bets on the collapse of the
government. First it was a few weeks, then it was a few months and then a
few years. Every time it was the same wishful thinking. What is
definite is that the Russian support to the Syrian people and government from
the very beginning, along with the strong and staunch support of Iran, has
played a very important part in the steadfastness of the Syrian state in the
fight against terrorism.
Question 17: You mean the previous
one, or the recent military intervention?
President Assad: No, the
whole support; it is not only about their participation. Their support
from the very beginning in all aspects: political, military and economic.
Question 18: How and why did
Russian involvement come about now? And can you give us some details of
the discussions between you and President Putin that brought it about?
Who took the first step? Did you ask, or did they offer?
The Russians want to protect
Syria, Iraq, the region, themselves and even Europe
President Assad: You will
have to ask the Russians why they got involved. But from our perspective,
since the Western coalition started in Syria, ISIS has expanded, al-Nusra has
expanded and every other extremist and terrorist group has expanded and
captured new territory in Syria and Iraq. The Russians clearly saw how
this posed a threat to Syria, Iraq and the region in general, as well as to
Russia and the rest of the world. We can see this as a reality in Europe
today. If you read and analyse what happened in Paris recently and at
Charlie Hebdo, rather than view them as separate incidences, you will realize
something very important. How many extremists cells now exist in Europe?
How many extremists did you export from Europe to Syria? This is
where the danger lies. The danger is in the incubator. The Russians
can see this very clearly. They want to protect Syria, Iraq, the region,
themselves and even Europe. I am not exaggerating by saying they are
protecting Europe today.
Question 19: So, did they come to
you and say we would like to be involved? Or did you ask them: could you help
President Assad: It was an
accumulative decision; it didn’t happen by me having this idea or them having
another. As you know, our relationship with the Russians goes back more
than five decades, and they have always had military staff in Syria: call them
experts or by any other name. This cooperation accelerated and increased
during the crisis. Their teams are here and can see the situation
real-time with us. This kind of decision doesn’t start from the top down,
but rather from the bottom up. There is a daily political and military
discussion between our two countries. When it reached a presidential
level, it was mature enough and ready for the decision to be made quickly.
Question 20: But there must have
been a point when they said: we think, or with your agreement, we think that we
should actually now physically get involved.
President Assad: Again, this was
started at the lower levels. These officials jointly agreed that it was
necessary to get involved and each party discussed it with their leaders.
When it reached the stage of discussion between us, I mean between
President Putin and I, we focused our discussions on the how. Of course
this did not happen directly as we had not yet met and it’s impossible to
discuss these issues on the phone. It was mediated through senior
officials from both sides. That is what happened. In terms of
procedure, I sent a letter to President Putin which included an invitation for
their forces to participate.
Question 21: So you asked
president Putin having been advised by your officials.
President Assad: Exactly,
after we reached that point I sent President Putin a formal letter and we released
a statement announcing that we had invited them to join our efforts.
Let’s not forget that President Putin had already taken the step when he
said he was willing to create a coalition. My response to this was that
we are ready if you want to bring your forces to participate.
Question 22: So, what forces
have been deployed? I am talking about Russian forces. There have been reports,
for example, of a thousand ground troops plus Special Forces, is this correct?
Is there anytime when you think that the Russians will be involved in Syria,
not just by air but with ground troops as well?
President Assad: No, so far
there is no such thing. There are no ground troops except for the
personnel that they send with their military staff and airplanes to guard the
airbase, and that is natural. They don’t have any ground troops fighting
with Syrian forces at all.
Question 23: And there is no
plan for that?
President Assad: We have not
discussed that yet, and I don’t think we need it now, because things are moving
in the right direction. The Russians may consider it with time or under
different circumstances, but for the moment, this has not been discussed.
Question 24: There was a report,
or a hint, that Syria might be receiving S-300 from the Russians, and the S-300
will allow Syria to protect its airspace. Is this something, for example, that
Syria will use against the US-led coalition’s air force, even if Britain was
involved, since their warplanes are in Syrian skies, as you said earlier,
without official or sovereign permission. As Syria will receive S-300, then
will it use this to impose, if you want, protection of its skies and impose a
way to tell the coalition that you have to actually directly deal with us, or
coordinate with us on the ground?
We will use any means available to
us to protect our airspace
President Assad: That is our
right and it is only to be expected that we prevent any airplane from violating
our airspace. That is completely legal. We are going to use any
means available to us to protect our airspace. It is not about that
armament in particular. Any air defense we have is for that reason.
Question 25: Do you have
that defense at the moment?
President Assad: No. So far
we don’t have it.
Question 26: If you get that
President Assad: Any defense
systems we are going to have are for that purpose. If we are not going to
protect our airspace, then why buy such armaments in the first place?
That is self-evident.
Question 27: And if you get
President Assad: Not at the
moment; it is not our priority now. Our priority is fighting the
terrorists on the ground. This is the most important danger now. Of
course we are keen to protect our airspace and prevent foreign interference in
our internal affairs, militarily or other. But the priority now is to
defeat the terrorists. By defeating the terrorists, some of whom are
Syrians, we can move further in protecting the whole country from foreigners.
It is a matter of priorities.
Question 28: But I meant
about the actual coalition airplanes that are actually flying over Syria. So,
that is not a priority either at the moment?
President Assad: No, not at the
moment. At the moment the priority is fighting terrorism.
Question 29: If Saudi Arabia
were to invite you for serious discussions on the future of Syria, would you
accept such an invitation? Or have relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia
been severely severed that you would never consider that?
President Assad: No, there
is nothing impossible in politics. It is not about whether I accept or
not, but rather about the policies of each government. What are their
policies towards Syria? Are they going to keep supporting the terrorists or
not? Are they going to continue playing their dangerous games in Syria, Yemen
and other places? If they are ready and willing to change their policies,
especially with regard to Syria, we don’t have a problem meeting with them.
So it is not about the meeting or whether we go or not, the issue is
their approach to what is happening in Syria.
Question 30: Do you expect
any results from the talks in Vienna? And what would be the shape of any
possible deal that you see coming out of Vienna?
President Assad: The most
important clause in the Vienna communique is that the Syrians should come
together to discuss the future of Syria. Everything else is an accessory.
If you don’t have that main part, the accessories are of no use.
So, the only solution is for us to come together as Syrians. Vienna
itself is a meeting to announce intentions; it is not the actual process of
siting down and discussing the future. So, the question is not what
results from Vienna, but rather what we Syrians are able to achieve when we sit
Question 31: But do you
realize that some of the opposition’s leaders, and I’m talking about opposition
figures who have been against taking up arms and what have you, but are also
afraid of coming to Syria, because the moment they land in Syria, they will be
arrested by the security officers and put in prison. And it has happened to
President Assad: No, it has
never happened. There is an opposition in Syria, and they are free to do
whatever they want.
Question 32: No, I mean the
external opposition. For example, somebody like Haitham Mannaa, cannot come
President Assad: We have
clearly stated that when there is a gathering in Syria, which they want to
attend, we guarantee that they will not be arrested or held. We have said
this many times. We don’t have any problems in this regard.
Question 33: Now, Saudi
Arabia invited 65 figures, including opposition leaders, even rebel commanders,
businessmen, religious figures for a meeting in Saudi Arabia to present a
united front in preparation for the January Vienna talks. Yet, the Syrian
government, which is the other major element in this whole thing for the future
of Syria, has not been seen to be involved with the opposition. Are you
conducting any talks with the opposition? Have you reached any consensus with
President Assad: We have
direct channels with some opposition groups; but others cannot communicate with
us because they are not allowed to do so by the governments that control them.
From our perspective, we are open for discussions with every peaceful
opposition party. We don’t have any problems. With regards to the
meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi’s have been supporting terrorism directly,
publically and explicitly. That meeting will not change anything on the
ground. Before the meeting and after the meeting Saudi Arabia has been
supporting terrorists and will continue to do so. It is not a benchmark
or a critical juncture to discuss. It will not change anything.
Question 34: Do you see that
anytime, in the future, that in order to protect Syria, or in order to save
Syria, or to get the Syria process moving, that you might see yourself sitting
with certain groups, one group, or certain groups, that perhaps now you deem
terrorist, but in the future, it might be feasible that you would agree to negotiate
with them because it would do well for the future?
President Assad: We already
have; since the very beginning one of the pillars of our policy, was to start a
dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, whether they were in Syria
or not. We negotiated with many terrorist groups, not organizations – to
be very precise, who wanted to give up their armaments, and return to normal
life. These negotiations led to many amnesties being issued and has
proven to be very successful in several areas. Furthermore, some of these
fighters have joined the Syrian Army and are now fighting with our forces.
So yes, we are sitting down with those who committed illegal acts in
Syria, whether political or military, to negotiate settlements on the condition
that they give up their arms and return to normal life. This doesn’t mean
that we negotiate with terrorist organizations like ISIS, al-Nusra and others.
This is what I meant by groups, those who want out of the fight, regret their
choices and want to have their lives back.
Question 35: The rebels call
them barrel bombs. You refuse to refer to them as barrel bombs. Irrespective of
the name, these were indiscriminate. Do you accept that Syria used
indiscriminate bombs in some areas, which resulted in the death of many
President Assad: Let us
suppose that this part of the propaganda is true, which it isn’t. But for
the sake of argument, let us ask the same question regarding the different
attacks committed by the Americans and the British with their state-of-the-art
airplanes and missiles in Afghanistan and in Iraq, not only after the invasion
of Iraq in 2003, but also during the first Gulf war in 1990. How many
civilians and innocent people were killed by those airstrikes with these very
high precision missiles? They killed more civilians than terrorists.
So, the issue is not these so-called barrel bombs and this evil president
killing the good people who are fighting for freedom. This romantic image
is not the case. It is about how you use your armaments, rather than the
difference between so called barrel bombs and high precision missiles. It
is about how you use these weapons, what kind of information you have and your
intention. Do we have the will to kill innocent people? How is that
possible when the state is defending them? By doing so, we are pushing
them towards the terrorists. If we want to kill people, for any reason,
innocent people or civilians, that will play directly into the hands of the
terrorists. And this is against our interests. Are we going to
shoot ourselves in the foot? That is not realistic and not logical. This
propaganda cannot be sold anymore.
Question 36: Mr President, the
final question. As president of the country, and you always lead the military
and everything. Do you, even if by default, not bear responsibility for some of
the things that happened in Syria?
President Assad: I’ve been asked
this question many times especially by western media and journalists. The
aim of the question is to corner me between two answers: if I were to say I was
responsible, they would say look the President bears responsibility for
everything that happened, if I were to say I am not responsible, they would say
this is not true, you are the president, how can you not be responsible.
Question 37: Because you are
the head, like in a family …
President Assad: Let me
continue, that was only an introduction to my answer. It is very simple.
Since the very beginning, we built our policy around two pillars,
engaging in dialogue with everyone, and fighting terrorism everywhere in Syria.
Now, if you want to talk about the responsibility, you have to discuss
many aspects of the conflict, and the reason why we are here today in this
difficult and dire situation in Syria. If I am to claim responsibility,
do I also claim responsibility for asking the Qataris to pay the terrorists
money? Or for the Saudis to fund their activities? Or for western
governments allowing their terrorists to come to Syria? Do I claim
responsibility for asking western governments to offer a political umbrella to
those terrorists and label them as moderates? Or for the western embargos
on the Syrian people? This is how we have to discuss it. We cannot
simply say, that he takes responsibility or not. We have to talk about
every part; we have to differentiate between the policy decisions and the
practices, between the strategy and the tactics. So, it is very
complicated to evaluate it. Additionally, if you want to evaluate who
bears responsibility in Syria, it could happen at the end of the war, when you
can investigate the whole story before, during and after.
Mr President, thank you very much.