SPIEGEL Interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad "America Must Listen"

Part 2: Part II: "We don't want this chaos"

Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled a trip to Syria after President Assad referred to Israel as an "enemy."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled a trip to Syria after President Assad referred to Israel as an "enemy."

SPIEGEL: What exactly will happen to the Palestinian refugees? To where should they return?

Assad: They have the right of return, at least to Palestine…

SPIEGEL: … to Palestine or Israel?

Assad: You would have to talk to the Palestinians about that. What we are talking about now is their return to the Palestinian state -- which is something George W. Bush also speaks about. But it raises questions. What sort of state is this at all? A sovereign state or just a few specks of land covering a few square kilometers? Incidentally, I do not believe that the majority of the refugees want to return to Israel. Most of them want to go back to a Palestine within the borders of 1967. The problem is that at the moment Israel is even rejecting this return. This is unacceptable to us.

SPIEGEL: In your speech, your tone was quite a bit different. In it, you called Israel an “enemy” and praised the “glorious battles” of Hezbollah. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled his trip to Damascus as a result.

Assad: Whenever you Germans come to Syria, you talk about freedom of opinion. Why don’t you allow me to have my opinion? But seriously: politicians should listen carefully. In my speech, I used the word “peace” 57 times. And if this speech was bellicose, how should one interpret the fact that Germany sends a submarine to the Israelis every other year?

SPIEGEL: Were you disappointed when Steinmeier cancelled his trip?

Assad: Of course, but the German foreign minister remains in contact with our foreign minister and has said that he wants to make up the trip. There’s another thing: The majority of my people think the way I spoke. We all have to have consideration for public opinion in our countries: the Europeans for theirs, and I for public opinion in Syria.

SPIEGEL: Public opinion in Germany would not have accepted it had the foreign minister not reacted to your having called Israel an enemy.

Assad: But Israel occupies a part of my country – of course Israel is an enemy. If you want to play a role in our region, then you have to be able to see things from our point of view. That’s also true for the classification of Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization.” That cannot remain so. In 2004, Germany played an important role during the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah. That’s exactly the point: to work within the realities that exist in this part of the world.

SPIEGEL: Germany’s history also plays a role. Do you accept that Germany has a special responsibility for Israel?

Assad: Do you mean that Israel is allowed to kill Palestinians and Arabs because Jews at that time were killed in Germany?

SPIEGEL: No, of course not. We’re talking about Israel’s right to exist.

Assad: But why don’t you also protect our right to exist? For us, the balance is important, and there, Europe is much closer to us than America. Europe knows our world.

SPIEGEL: Not long from now, German ships will begin patrolling off the Lebanese coast. What do you think of the German military mission in the Middle East?

The German navy set sail on Thursday for Lebanon. The Germans are to patrol the coast of Lebanon and help prevent weapons from reaching Hezbollah.

The German navy set sail on Thursday for Lebanon. The Germans are to patrol the coast of Lebanon and help prevent weapons from reaching Hezbollah.

Assad: That depends on the mission. Germany is supposed to prevent weapons from reaching Hezbollah. History teaches us that nobody can prevent a resistance group from arming when it has the support of the people.

SPIEGEL: Mission Impossible for the German navy?

Assad: As long as the public support for Hezbollah remains as high as it is today, yes, it is a Mission Impossible. The majority here sees the resistance against Israel as legitimate. I would advise the Europeans: Don’t waste your time, address the roots of the problem.

SPIEGEL: How does Syria support Hezbollah? With weapons?

Assad: As a resistance organization, Hezbollah has a right to arm itself – and they have more than enough weapons. In Syria, we wouldn’t make ourselves the target of an Israeli attack by delivering arms. We support Hezbollah by helping with the reconstruction of Lebanon or by opening up our universities to its students.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, Syria enjoys excellent relations with Iran. Do you agree with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demand that Israel be “wiped off the map?”

Assad: The statement is so famous because nobody believes any more in Israel's peaceful intentions. An entire generation is growing up today with the conviction that only strength and war will lead to peace.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that too?

Assad: I don’t believe in war, I believe in the principle of deterrence.

SPIEGEL: That’s not, though, what Ahmadinejad means.

Assad: I don’t say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace – peace with Israel.

SPIEGEL: So you have a different point of view than Ahmadinejad?

Assad: To be honest, I’ve never discussed this point with him personally. But even my personal opinion, my hope for peace, could change one day. And when the hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution.

SPIEGEL: Israel is strong – but weakened by the war in Lebanon. America is strong – but weakened by Iraq. Syria and Hezbollah have been strengthened by the recent conflict. According to your logic, isn’t now the moment for peace?

Assad: Many people asked me during the war: “Why are you always talking about peace? Why don’t we go to war? Let’s go the way of the resistance – Hezbollah is finding success with it.” That’s the mood here. One should know that in the West.

SPIEGEL: Under your father, Syria and Israel came very close to a peace treaty. Will you one day sit down at the same table with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

Assad: Diplomats would likely have to sit down together for a long time – like 10 years ago when we negotiated with Israel under the mediation of President Bill Clinton. But if peace comes, then everything will change. Peace has a lot of strength. Whether I will ever sit down with Olmert, whether I ever shake his hand, I’ll decide that when the time comes.

SPIEGEL: During our last discussion a year ago, you denied that Syrians had anything to do with the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Assad: And I’m even more convinced of that today than I was then. It was unfortunately a German, UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, who accused us of being behind the attack. But he never presented concrete evidence.

SPIEGEL: Mehlis’s successor Serge Brammertz will soon present his interim report.

Assad: We are not concerned. What can one accuse us of? The only thing we know is that it was a suicide attack, similar to the attack on the US Embassy in Damascus. We don’t know if there was someone big behind this crime.

SPIEGEL: Six years ago, you took office as a reformer. Are you disappointed that you haven’t really made any progress?

Assad: My primary goal is to create prosperity. But today – mostly because of the war in Iraq – security is our highest priority and we have fallen behind schedule when it comes to modernization. This year, we have 5 percent growth – and that’s too little. Soon, we are going to open the first private television channel and a private newsmagazine. But we have to remain careful. The way our neighborhood looks, we are always teetering on the brink of chaos. And we don’t want this chaos.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry, Gerhard Spörl and Bernhard Zand

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