Interview with Bashar Assad: 'In the End, a Lie Is a Lie'

By Dieter Bednarz and

In a SPIEGEL interview, Syrian President Bashar Assad discusses his fight for power, his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the special expectations he has for Germany.

Editor's note: The following is the version of the interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad that ran in the Monday edition of SPIEGEL. Earlier on Monday, the Syrian state news agency Sana published its own version of the interview. There are minor differences that reflect changes made by our fact-checkers.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, do you love your country?

Assad: That is a simple, evident question. Of course. It's human to love where you come from. But it is not just a question of the emotional relationship. It is also about what you, as a person, can do for your home, especially when you are in a position of authority. That becomes especially clear in times of crisis. Right now, at a time when I have to protect my country, I am feeling just how much I love it.

SPIEGEL: If you were a true patriot, you would step down and pave the way for negotiations for an interim government or a cease-fire with the armed opposition.

Assad: The Syrian people will determine my fate. That is not a question any other party can decide. Who are these factions? Who do they represent? The Syrian people? At least part of the Syrian people? If they do, then let's go to the ballot box.

SPIEGEL: Are you prepared to stand in an election?

Assad: My second term in office will end next August. Two months earlier we will hold a presidential election. I cannot decide now whether I am going to run. It's still early, because you have to probe the mood and will of the people. If I no longer know that I have the will of the people behind me, then I will not run.

SPIEGEL: So you're really considering giving up power?

Assad: Whether I'm open-minded or not, this is about the decision of the people, because this is their country. It's not only my country.

SPIEGEL: But you are the reason for the rebellion. The people want to get rid of corruption and despotism. They are calling for a real democracy and the opposition believes this will only be possible if you step down.

Assad: Again, when you talk about factions, whether they are opposition or supporters, you have to ask yourself the question: Whom do they represent? Themselves or the country that made them? Are they speaking for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? My answer here has to be frank and straight to the point. This conflict has been brought to our country from abroad. These people are located abroad, they live in five-star hotels and they say and do what those countries tell them to do. But they have no grassroots in Syria.

SPIEGEL: Do you dispute that there's a strong opposition against you in your country?

Assad: That's normal. If I don't have opposition, it means all the people support me, and that's impossible.

SPIEGEL: But we aren't the only ones who are disputing your legitimacy. "A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country," US President Obama said at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September.

Assad: First of all, you're talking about the president of the United States, not the president of Syria -- so he can only talk about his country. It is not legitimate for him to judge Syria. He doesn't have the right to tell the Syrian people who their president will be. Second, what he says doesn't have anything to do with the reality. He's been talking about the same thing -- that the president has to quit -- for a year and a half now. Has anything happened? Nothing has happened.

SPIEGEL: From our point of view, it looks more like you are the one who is ignoring reality. If you stepped own, you would spare your people a lot of suffering.

Assad: The whole problem wasn't about the president. What do killing innocents, explosions and the terrorism that al-Qaida is bringing to the country have to do with me being in office?

SPIEGEL: It has to do with the president because your troops and intelligence services are responsible for a part of these horrors. That is your responsibility.

Assad: Our decision from the very beginning was to respond to the demands of the demonstrators, although they were not truly peaceful demonstrations from the start. We already lost soldiers and policemen during the first weeks. Nevertheless, a committee changed the constitution (to reflect the protesters' concerns), and later there was a referendum. But we also have to fight terrorism to defend our country. I admit that mistakes were made during the implementation of this decision.

SPIEGEL: The victims in the first protests in Daraa, where the insurgency began, were largely protesters who were beaten and shot. This harshness was a mistake on the part of your regime.

Assad: In every implementation in the world, you have mistakes. You are human.

SPIEGEL: So you admit that the harshness against the protesters was a mistake?

Assad: There were personal mistakes made by individuals. We all make mistakes. Even a president makes mistakes. But even if there were mistakes in the implementation, our decisions were still fundamentally the right ones.

SPIEGEL: Was the massacre at Houla only the result of the failure of individuals?

Assad: It was the gangs and militants who attacked the village residents, never the government or its supporters. That's exactly what happened. And if you talk about proof, no one has proof against this. Actually, what happened was that our supporters are the ones who were killed, and we can give you the names of the victims' families because they supported our course against terror.

SPIEGEL: We have plenty of evidence. Our reporters were in Houla, where they conducted in-depth research and spoke to survivors and relatives of the victims. UN experts have also come to the conclusion that the 108 village residents who were killed, including 49 children and 34 women, were the victims of your regime. So how can you deny any responsibility and blame the so-called terrorists?

Assad: With all due respect to your reports, we are the Syrians. We live here and we know the reality better than your reporters. We know what is true and we can document it.

SPIEGEL: The perpetrators are part of Shabiha, a militia that is close to your regime.

Assad: Let me be frank with you. Your question is full of misstatements. However you put it, in the end a lie is a lie. So, what you say is not correct.

SPIEGEL: So you deny that the Shabiha militia was involved?

Assad: What do you mean by "Shabiha?"

SPIEGEL: This militia, the "ghosts," who are close to your regime.

Assad: This is a Turkish name. There is nothing called "Shabiha" in Syria. In many remote areas where there is no possibility for the army and police to go and rescue the people and defend them, people have bought arms and set up their own small forces to defend themselves against attacks by militants. Some of them have fought with the army, that's true. But they are not militias that have been created to support the president. At issue is their country, which they want to defend from al-Qaida.

SPIEGEL: So massacres and terror are only perpetrated by the other side? Your militias, security forces and secret services have nothing to do with this?

Assad: You cannot go to the extreme and make things absolute -- they did everything and we did nothing, 100 percent and zero percent. Reality isn't black and white like this. It has shades of gray. So if you want to talk about our side, if you talk about the decisions, we are defending our country. The mistakes are individual, and, as president, I wouldn't discuss individual mistakes because there are 23 million Syrians. Every country has criminals who have to be fought. They can exist anywhere, including the government or the army -- or outside the government and army. This is normal, but we don't have sufficient information about this. You're asking me to generalize, but I cannot generalize.

SPIEGEL: A president's legitimacy is not a question of phrases and declarations. You are measured by your deeds. Through the deployment of chemical weapons against your own people, you have definitively lost the legitimacy to hold your office.

Assad: We did not use chemical weapons. This is a misstatement. So is the picture you paint of me as a man who kills his own people. Who isn't against me? You've got the United States, the West, the richest countries in the Arab world and Turkey. All this and I am killing my people and they still support me! Am I a Superman? No. So how can I still stay in power after two and a half years? Because a big part of the Syrian people support me, the government and the state. Whether that figure is greater or less than 50 percent? I am not saying that it is the bigger part of our population. But a big part means that you are legitimate. That is very simple. And where is another another leader who would be similarly legitimate?

SPIEGEL: President Obama said after the investigation into this crime by the United Nations that there was "no doubt" that your regime used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people.

Assad: Once again, I dare Obama to give a single piece of evidence, a single shred. The only thing he has is lies.

SPIEGEL: But the conclusions of the UN inspectors …

Assad: What conclusions? When the inspectors came to Syria, we asked them to continue the investigation. We are hoping for an explanation of who is responsible for this act.

SPIEGEL: Based on the trajectory of the rockets, it is possible to calculate where they were fired from -- namely the positions of your Fourth Division.

Assad: That doesn't prove anything, because the terrorists could be anywhere. You can find them in Damascus now. They could even launch a missile from near my house.

SPIEGEL: But your opponents are not capable of firing weapons containing Sarin. That requires military equipment, training and precision.

Assad: Who said that they are not capable? In the 1990s, terrorists used Sarin gas in an attack in Tokyo. They call it "kitchen gas" because it can be made anywhere.

SPIEGEL: But you really can't compare these two Sarin attacks -- they aren't comparable. This was a military action.

Assad: No one can say with certainty that rockets were used -- we do not have any evidence. The only thing certain is that Sarin was released. Perhaps that happened when one of our rockets struck one of the terrorists' positions? Or perhaps they made an error while they were handling it and something happened. Because they have Sarin -- they used it earlier in Aleppo.

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1. optional
chuchu3151 10/07/2013
I think Der Spiegel's interviewer was impertinent, disrespectful and one sided. I would have terminated the interview forthwith. President Assad was interrogated and yet he kept his cool and overshadowed the interrogation with facts.
2. interview with Assad
joe 10/08/2013
This was a very aggressive reporter who was insulting and biased beyond any journalistic standards I am familiar with. Imagine if a reporter addressed Angela Merkel in the same hostile fashion. What would your leader's response be? No matter what a journalist may think of the person being interviewed, there has to be maintained a certain level of civility else journalism itself becomes part of the story and can no longer do its job credibly. There's a big distinction between 'hard questions' and belligerent bias in an interview. You guys need to get your house in order. I know in the past German's have carried their self righteousness much too far.
3. Interview
PJ V 10/08/2013
Very subjective interview. The reporter only believes reports written by western nations or western institutions like the UN. I do believe the atrocities are mostly committed by muslim fanatics, allthough I follow the president when he states that it is a grey zone and violent actions are commited on both sides.
4. Assad Interview
hghcape 10/08/2013
I can't help it but contrary to the chatter in our press, other media and especially from the American president, Mr. Assad sounded a lot more convincing about the realities in his country. The interviewer, while asking all the questions that we all hear everyday that give us all these nasty suspicions, inadvertently gave all the credit to Mr. Assad. In fact, the more I read about the Middle East the more I am convinced that the West, especially America know next to nothing about the entire region and just dump their degenerated concerns on the rest of the world because it still has the power to do that and to be heard.
5.
Benedict 10/08/2013
I am dissappointed with this interviewer. Although 'hard questions' are a form of journalism that can get good answers, I believe if the interviewer was a little more intelligent, the interview would of been much better.
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