SPIEGEL Interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad 'Peace without Syria Is Unthinkable'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Syrian President Bashar Assad discusses the war between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb and his expectations for incoming United States President Barack Obama.


Editor's note: The following interview was conducted on Thursday with Syrian President Assad prior to the announcement of unilateral cease-fires by Israel and Hamas.

Syrian President Bashar Assad: "Just this morning, I saw the picture of a three-year-old girl who was killed. Where is the West's outcry?"
DPA

Syrian President Bashar Assad: "Just this morning, I saw the picture of a three-year-old girl who was killed. Where is the West's outcry?"

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, the world community is protesting Israel's aggression in Gaza, but they have also called upon Hamas to relent. No one in the Arab world has as much influence on Hamas as you do. Couldn't you have tempered the fighters?

Assad: It always depends on how one uses one's influence. Our most urgent objective is to stop the attack. The fighting must come to an end, and this applies to both sides. In addition, the Israeli embargo against Gaza must end, because sealing the borders is strangling the population. The blockade is a slow death. People don't just die as a result of bombs, but also because their supplies of medications and food are cut off.

SPIEGEL: Israel will only lift the blockade once the rockets are no longer being fired at its cities.

Assad: If the people in Gaza have only the choice between a slow death caused by the blockade or death in battle, they will choose to fight. This is why lifting the embargo is an indispensable part of an agreement. We agree with Hamas on this point. Basically, Hamas is not the problem in this conflict, but Israel.

SPIEGEL: Much of the world considers Israel's military action to be disproportionate. But Hamas provoked it by shelling southern Israel. Each additional rocket results in more violent retribution and increases human suffering.

Assad: That sounds logical. But politics is about realities, not logic. The fact is that for six months Hamas complied with the cease-fire that had been agreed upon. The Israeli government, on the other hand, continued to constrict the Gaza Strip during that time. One has to be aware of this background information.

SPIEGEL: The United States and the European Union see this background differently. They consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization that wants to destroy Israel.

Assad: Oh, here we go with the same old labels and clichés. That's the American way. Whether you call it terrorism or resistance, and whether you like Hamas or not, it is a political entity that no one can ignore. There is no truth to the notion that Hamas is holding the people hostage, as some people claim. Hamas captured an absolute majority of votes in the internationally recognized parliamentary election three years ago, a landslide victory. You cannot declare an entire people to be terrorists.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that all of the tools of resistance Hamas is using, which make it a terrorist organization in our view, are justified?

Assad: Definitely. There is no doubt about it. How can you accuse Hamas of terrorism without defining Israel's actions as terror? During the most recent six-month ceasefire, Israel targeted and killed more than a dozen Palestinians, but no Israeli died. And yet Europe remained silent. More than 1,000 people have already died as a result of the Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip. Just this morning, I saw the picture of a three-year-old girl who was killed. Where is the West's outcry?

SPIEGEL: We can understand the argument of justified resistance against a military power. But Hamas has acquired its reputation as a terrorist organization primarily through suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Do you intend to excuse that, as well?

Assad: I don't want to talk about methods of killing. But what is the difference between a bomb worn on the body and one dropped from an airplane? Both of them kill people. Personally, I do not support the concept of suicide bombings. This is not part of our culture. But whether you condemn them or not, suicide bombings are a reality.

SPIEGEL: No Western politician wants to sit at the same table with Hamas.

Assad: That's not true at all. Many European officials have sought a dialogue with Hamas, especially recently.

SPIEGEL: With your mediation?

A United Nations worker tries to extinguish the fire billowing from Israeli bombardment at the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City on Jan. 15: "The fighting must come to an end, and this applies to both sides."
DPA

A United Nations worker tries to extinguish the fire billowing from Israeli bombardment at the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City on Jan. 15: "The fighting must come to an end, and this applies to both sides."

Assad: The Europeans have learned from experience. That's why they are now talking to the Hamas leadership here in Damascus -- not publicly, of course. I don't want to mention any names. But I do think it's telling that they include people who are especially critical of Hamas in their speeches. We try to help where we can.

SPIEGEL: The key Hamas representative abroad, Khaled Mashaal, was granted asylum in your country. He is at the very top of the Israelis' hit list. Many consider him to be far more radical than the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Are there any conditions to your hospitality?

Assad: Mashaal has changed. He already mentioned the borders of 1967 in 2006. What does that mean? It means that he accepts a two-state solution. Besides, a few months ago he also said that he would sign anything that the Palestinian people see as the right thing to do.

SPIEGEL: That's a very broad interpretation. In our view, it is little more than indirect recognition.

Assad: Talking about the 1967 borders means more than indirect recognition. We Syrians see it this way: We do not recognize Israel and Israel is still our enemy -- it occupies part of our country, the Golan Heights. If the Israelis withdraw from Golan, we will recognize them. First comes peace, then recognition -- not the other way around. We have been grappling with our relationship with Israel for more than 30 years now. With Hamas, the process began only three years ago. You have to exercise patience.

SPIEGEL: But the dramatic situation in Gaza requires more than thinking within a historic timeframe.

Assad: That's why we are active here in Damascus and have made proposals and presented them to Hamas, the French, the Turks and the government of Qatar…

SPIEGEL: …which invited countries last week to an Arab crisis summit in Doha. What do you see as a solution?

Assad: This is my peace plan: First, there must be a cease-fire, and it must happen at the same time on both sides. In the ensuing 48 hours, but within no more than four days, the Israelis must withdraw completely from the entire Gaza Strip.

During this time, negotiations to lift the embargo must take place. This could take a while, because controlling the borders is a very complicated issue, but it should take no more than a week. In addition, the people in Gaza need international guarantees that they will not be attacked again.

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