Mr. President, there are tentative movements toward democracy here and there in the Arab world. But there is little evidence of that in Syria. Why not?
Assad: Well, it just happens that the Arab states develop at different rates and under different historical conditions. Egypt, for example, has not experienced as many coups as Syria. Besides, Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel, whereas we remain in neither a state of war nor a state of peace with Israel. Incidentally, our development only began a few years ago, so of course expectations will vary widely. But the main issue is that we in Syria have at least opened up a dialogue about it.
SPIEGEL: But it's taking longer than many would like.
Assad: The pace of our development depends upon the challenges that we must face, which we cannot always influence. For example, we have to deal with foreign powers meddling in our internal affairs.
SPIEGEL: You mean the Americans' demands for more democracy and for putting an end to support for terrorists?
Assad: The more meddling there is, the slower the pace of development in Syria. After all, the democratic process should pervade the entire country. Naturally, the unresolved Middle East conflict also slows down development. And then there is the question of what should be our greatest priority -- political development or economic growth.
SPIEGEL: Are they mutually exclusive?
Assad: There is a tremendous gulf between the two objectives. To promote growth, we urgently need help from the European Union. For many of the Syrians I meet, poverty is a far greater concern than the outlook for a democratic constitution. Besides, there is also terrorism, which stands in the way of democratic development. We simply have to act as quickly as possible to keep things moving forward.
SPIEGEL: But you don't exactly make it easy for your fellow Syrians. Political parties are permitted, but they are immediately prohibited as soon as they form, while members of the opposition are arrested.
Assad: But you've been talking to opposition leaders in our country. If we were to arrest them all, there wouldn't be enough space in our prisons.
SPIEGEL: Most members of the opposition with whom we spoke have spent many years in prison.
Assad: But now they're out again. You can't simply equate the situation in the West with the situation in our country. Take religion, for example. In Great Britain, an author published a book in which he claimed that Jesus Christ had children. Such statements don't trigger civil unrest and bloodshed in Europe. But write similar statements about Islam in Syria and you might see bloody uprisings.
SPIEGEL: What does that have to do with real opposition in Syria?
Assad: When we put someone on trial, we're not trying him as a person. Instead, what concerns us is that he does not attack the population's religious and ethnic structure. The umbrella of stability must not be damaged. We gave the go-ahead for the formation of parties two months ago, and we are currently taking a very close look at these parties. I certainly don't dispute the contention that we do not have a well-developed system of political parties yet. I simply wanted to show you where we have to be cautious.
SPIEGEL: What exactly are you afraid of?
Assad: Developments like those in Algeria since 1991. At that time, the government misjudged the people, and the Islamists threatened to assume power. To this day, the Algerians are paying the price for this miscalculation with their own blood.
SPIEGEL: Look at the example of Riad Seif, a self-made businessman and member of the Syrian National Assembly. He criticized the omnipotence of the monopoly and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Assad: He questioned the unity of the nation, and we happen to have a law that calls for penalties for those who assail the mosaic of the various ethnic and religious groups.
SPIEGEL: Wasn't Seif merely questioning the distribution of power?
Assad: No, no one is put on trial for attacking me personally. But assaulting the composition of Syrian society is simply too explosive.
SPIEGEL: Journalists, too, are prevented from doing their work and sometimes even thrown in prison. When will you have true freedom of the press?
Assad: We have never locked up anyone because of his personal opinion.
SPIEGEL: A correspondent for a large Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, was recently sent to prison for several months.
Assad: That's a different issue. Under Syrian law, a journalist is not allowed to report on military matters. This may be wrong or right, but that's just the way it is.
SPIEGEL: You said that fighting poverty is more important than democracy. Does this mean that you intend to emulate the Chinese model: economic liberalization without political reforms?
Assad: When I say that the economy takes priority, it certainly doesn't mean that we relegate political reforms to the back seat. The economy may have taken priority in the last five years -- that's because it is important to improve the general standard of living. It's a dangerous thing when someone gets up in the morning and has nothing to eat. If I say to that person, "I intend to allow you to have political parties," how will he responsd? We don't care if this is the Chinese model or something else. Our actions reflect the needs of our country.
SPIEGEL: When will there be a recognizable democratic multiparty system in Syria?
Assad: It took us five years to achieve a societal dialogue. Now we are in the second phase, in which we begin discussing parties. It won't happen that quickly. For example, the same process took three years in Morocco.
SPIEGEL: Will it happen before the 2007 general election?
Assad: It's very likely, but you just can't make long-term predictions in our corner of the world. I cannot afford to make mistakes. Instead of jumping forward too quickly and possibly falling on our faces, we prefer to divide our tasks into smaller steps.
SPIEGEL: How do you propose to prevent the Algerian model -- the formation of religious parties that are democratically elected, but then act undemocratically?
Assad: Once again, we cannot apply Western standards to development in the Orient. In Germany, you may have a religious Christian party, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), but it has effectively assimilated itself into the fabric of the country. In return, your history prevents you from having any large nationalist parties. Our experience has shown us that the situation in Syria became stable because the entire society is secular. We must preserve that.
NEXT PAGE: Assad says UN investigation will clear Syria of allegations it was involved in the killing of Lebanon's former leader.
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.
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.