SPIEGEL Interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad "America Must Listen"
The Middle East, says Syrian President Bashar Assad, 40, seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos. He spoke with SPIEGEL about his country's difficult relationship with the United States, the pressure to go to war, and the consequences of the wars in Lebanon and Iraq.
Syrian President Bashar Assad: "Those who ask this US government about its vision don't receive answers anymore."
Assad: It was a terrorist attack -- which, on the face of it, says very little. Terrorism today is a state of mind that on the one hand has to do with ignorance and, on the other hand, can be attributed to a feeling of desperation over the political situation, which at some point takes the form of revenge. This appears to have been the background of this attack: a reaction to America's policies in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: One of the attackers was still alive for a short time after the attack. Did your intelligence services manage to interrogate him?
Assad: No, he was in a coma before he died. Our conclusions are based on data that was in the attackers' computers and on information from their private sphere. They were essentially from the same intellectual mould: men who call Osama bin Laden the "Lion of Islam." Al-Qaida people -- not in a hierarchical sense, but in terms of their worldview. Isolated young men from the Damascus suburbs -- which is what makes the whole thing so dangerous. We can fight a terrorist group, but these isolated cells suggest that such ideas are widespread.
SPIEGEL: United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thanked Syria for its role in preventing the attack. In return, however, you sharply criticized America's Middle East policies. Why didn't you take advantage of this rare gesture of goodwill?
Assad: Ms. Rice didn't thank us for our policies, only for our response to the attack. But this attack happened precisely because of American policies in our region.
SPIEGEL: Why should the Americans be at fault?
Assad: Because they contribute to hopelessness in our country, and to silencing the dialogue between cultures. And then there is the condescending language -- the expression "islamofascism," which President Bush used, is a prime example. The pope's recent comments are also part of it. Such statements complicate the situation and create this need for revenge.
SPIEGEL: A need for revenge could be understandable in Iraq or Palestine -- but in Syria?
Assad: There are close ties among our peoples, whether in Iraq, Syria or Palestine. We have the same feelings, the same habits and the same pride. Look at Damascus. There are 500,000 refugees from the occupied Golan Heights, about 500,000 from Palestine and about 100,000 from Iraq living here. We tend to the needs of these people, but all we get from the West is rejection.
SPIEGEL: What has to happen for Syria and the United States to reconcile?
Assad: America must listen. It must listen to the interests of others. But the US government has no interest in similarities, no matter how obvious. Think of the war against terrorism. In my view, Washington's approach can be compared to a doctor constantly banging away at a tumor instead of removing it surgically. Terrorism is growing instead of declining. We both suffer from it, but the United States doesn't want to cooperate with us.
SPIEGEL: The situation was different for a brief time after Sept. 11, 2001.
Assad: Yes, after the attacks I wrote a letter to President Bush and offered greater cooperation on security matters. It worked for quite a while and together, as the then CIA Director George Tenet confirmed to the US Congress, we saved many American lives. Then the Iraq war began to take shape and America started making many mistakes. And our cooperation ended.
SPIEGEL: After the most recent attack, too, there has been contact between US diplomats and Syrian officials.
Assad: Yes, but whether these meetings amount to anything will depend on the will of the Americans. What kinds of issues should we be discussing? Do we want to sit there drinking coffee and talk about the weather? Or do we want to achieve something in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Middle East peace process? Those who ask this US government about its vision don't receive answers anymore.
SPIEGEL: There was a vision: democracy in Iraq -- a model for the region.
Assad: And where is this democracy today? Simply naming objectives isn't sufficient for a vision. If I say that I'm going to build a large palace, but I don't have any money to do so, then that is not a vision -- it's an illusion.
SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?
Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn't help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.
A US soldier stands guard on the roof of the US Embassy in Damascus on Sept. 12 following a brazen daylight attack on the building.
Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it'll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union -- only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.
SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?
Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic -- but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America's tanks are not credible in Iraq.
SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a "critical stage of the history of Syria and the region." Wherein lies the opportunity?
Assad: First of all, it's clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It's being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe's foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.
SPIEGEL: What is Syria's role?
- Part 1: "America Must Listen"
- Part 2: Part II: "We don't want this chaos"