Ausgabe 35/2005

SPIEGEL Interview with Syrian President Assad "Poverty Is a Greater Concern for Most than a Democratic Constitution"

Part 2: NEXT PAGE: Assad says UN investigation will clear Syria of allegations it was involved in the killing of Lebanon's former leader.

Bashar Assad and his wife Asma

Bashar Assad and his wife Asma

SPIEGEL: In many of his speeches, United States President George W. Bush has complained that freedom must all too often take a back seat to stability. Do you feel he is addressing you with these comments?

Assad: Freedom and democracy are nothing but instruments, just like stability. The goal is called progress and growth. Anyone who puts freedom ahead of stability is hurting growth. Besides, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Iraq aren't exactly models of freedom.

SPIEGEL: Washington sees you as a sort of "Saddam-light."

Assad: There were real hostilities between the regime of Saddam Hussein and that of my father. Fifteen thousand Syrians lost their lives in these conflicts. Whereas I involve people from outside the party in the decision-making process, Saddam only permitted his own opinion. If we had taken the approach Saddam took in Iraq, I wouldn't feel safe walking on the street with my wife and children. Saddam was constantly in hiding. The fact that there are people who criticize me doesn't mean that people hate me.

SPIEGEL: Your father supported the first President Bush in the 1991 Gulf War. You, on the other hand, were a vocal critic of the war in 2003.

Assad: The first war was about the liberation of an Arab people suffering under occupation. The more recent war led to the occupation of an Arab country. There's a huge difference.

SPIEGEL: Do you sympathize with the insurgents who are fighting the occupation troops and the new government in Iraq?

Assad: There are terrorist operations in Iraq that claim the lives of innocent people; those we reject categorically. But there is also a resistance movement, and that's a different issue altogether -- a completely normal issue.

SPIEGEL: Are suicide attacks a legitimate weapon against the occupation forces?

Assad: Even the religious scholars disagree on that question, but I have the impression that most are in favor of these attacks. But this is a hypothetical debate. A person who is absolutely determined to blow himself up isn't about to ask you or me for our opinion. This debate is a waste of time.

SPIEGEL: The American government has accused you of facilitating access to Iraq through Syria for the insurgents.

Assad: It also accused Saddam of having weapons of mass destruction. But seriously, if you ask Americans whether they've been successful at sealing the border with Mexico, they'll tell you that it's a very difficult proposition. We've made it very clear to the Americans that it's impossible to completely control our border with Iraq. But we also tell them that the war itself is what's causing the chaos. It's not exactly fair to make a mistake yourself and then start blaming others for it.

SPIEGEL: The American government has classified Syria as a "rogue nation." Are you concerned that Washington plans to remove you from office?

Assad: Look at the results of regime change in Iraq. You can't possibly claim that it was successful.

An anti-Syria protest in Beirut, Lebanon

An anti-Syria protest in Beirut, Lebanon

SPIEGEL: During your last interview with SPIEGEL in 2001, you predicted that Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would plunge the entire region into war. But now he has withdrawn settlers from Gaza. Is there a new opportunity for peace?

Assad: Withdrawing settlers and troops from Gaza certainly is not a bad move. Nevertheless, that alone will not bring peace. Peace is only possible when all relevant UN resolutions have been fulfilled, and they include the return of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the repatriation of refugees, the return of the Golan Heights and the question of an independent Palestine.

SPIEGEL: Such maximum demands are unrealistic.

Assad: It's not a question of maximum or minimum demands. The place where the interests of all parties come together is the international community, along with its resolutions.

SPIEGEL: Israel has always been threatened with war and terror, and that's why it believes that satisfying some of the demands would be incompatible with its national interests.

Assad: We too are threatened by terror, as is your country. Conversely, it is correct to say that bringing about peace would be the best way to fight terror.

SPIEGEL: The offices of terrorist organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus are officially closed, but their leaders continue to live freely in Syria. Isn't this a double standard?

Assad: These people would normally live in the Palestinian territories. We didn't invite them to come to Syria. Israel drove them out.

SPIEGEL: Many politicians in neighboring Lebanon blame your government for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Some have even said that the two of you had a loud argument the last time he was in Damascus.

Assad: And some have even said I threatened him. Others claimed a security agent pointed his pistol at Hariri's head. That's simply ridiculous. In that conversation, we discussed extending the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. It's obvious that Hariri was against the idea. So I told him: "We don't want to pressure you. Go back to Lebanon and then give us your decision." He told us a few days later that he agreed with the plan. Why should Syria kill someone with whom it has no differences of opinion? It doesn't make any sense at all. In truth, we Syrians are the ones who ended up suffering the greatest drawbacks as a result of this affair.

SPIEGEL: You had to withdraw 14,000 occupation troops from Lebanon. But you didn't attend Hariri's funeral.

Assad: Of course not. It was a question of self-respect. After all, there were those accusations.

SPIEGEL: A German public prosecutor has been asked to investigate Hariri's murder on behalf of the United Nations. How will you react if he concludes that Syrians were also involved in the murder?

Assad: We are being fully cooperative. We are interested in the investigation, because we are convinced that it will clear our name -- as long as the outcome isn't falsified for political reasons. Syria has nothing to do with this murder, absolutely nothing.

SPIEGEL: Can you really completely rule out the possibility that neither your intelligence services nor any other Syrian is involved?

Assad: I'm absolutely certain. That kind of plan requires the cooperation of several individuals and organizations. If this cooperation had existed, we would have known about it.

SPIEGEL: And any Syrian citizen that prosecutor Mehlis wishes to question will be allowed to testify?

Assad: I have already said that anyone with whom he wishes to speak may testify. This is in my interest and in Syria's interest.

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

The interview was conducted by SPIEGEL editors Martin Doerry, Hans Hoyng and Susanne Koelbl.


© DER SPIEGEL 35/2005
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