Interview with Bashar Assad 'In the End, a Lie Is a Lie'
Part 3: 'We Don't Have any Other Option than To Believe in Our Victory'
SPIEGEL: According to our information, the armed opposition controls at least 40 percent of the country, and some estimates put that figure as high as more than two-thirds of the country.
Assad: These numbers are exaggerated. Sixty percent of Syria is desert. Who's in the desert? Nobody. In the rest of the country they don't control a single full area.
SPIEGEL: That's not true for the area along the Turkish border.
Assad: They are on the borders in the north of Aleppo with Turkey, but only on that part, not fully. They have some areas, but they are just focal points. We're not talking about a front. Sometimes they are isolated in areas where there's no army to fight them. But this isn't about percentages. The solidarity of the population is much more important to us. And this is growing because many don't want terrorists destroying the country any more.
SPIEGEL: The brutality of the conflict has turned a quarter of the population -- some 6 million people -- into refugees.
Assad: We don't have a precise number. Even 4 million could be exaggerated because many Syrians moved within Syria to another house or with relatives and didn't register themselves.
SPIEGEL: You sound as if you are talking about a tax increase and not a humanitarian catastrophe.
Assad: Actually, no. In the West, when you ask about the number, you talk about it like spreadsheets. If you have 1 million or 5 million, you're going to do the same. Whether it's 70,000 victims, 80,000, then 90,000, or 100,000, it's like an auction. It's not an auction -- it's a tragedy. Whether it's 1,000 or 10,000, it's the same.
SPIEGEL: The flood of refugees is happening for one reason -- you and your regime.
Assad: Sorry, is this a question or a statement of fact? If it's a statement, it's not correct. If it's a question, the first thing we have to ask is why people leave? You don't have one reason; you have multiple reasons. One of the reasons is that many people left their homes and houses because of the threat of the terrorists.
SPIEGEL: No one is fleeing your soldiers and security forces?
Assad: The army represents Syria, otherwise you wouldn't have the army, because it would have been divided a long time ago. It is a threat to no one. When it comes to refugees, you have to ask yourself a question about the other governments, especially the Turkish government. What is their interest in having these high numbers? You know what it is? Their interest is to use them as a humanitarian card with the UN. Some other countries used them to get money for themselves, not the refugees. So you have corruption, interests and some people that could have fled because they are scared of the government, but we don't have anything against them. And in the last two weeks, more than 100,000 or 150,000, depending on the estimate, came back to Syria. So the tide has recently been reversed.
SPIEGEL: How did you convince people to return?
Assad: We worked hard to bring them back. We engaged with everybody to alleviate their fears. If you didn't violate the law, then we have no problem with you. If you are against the government, come be against the government in Syria. We don't have a problem. That was very successful.
SPIEGEL: From a military perspective, however, you haven't had any success. The capture of Aleppo that was promised has not come to pass. Maalula remains a major problem, and there's even fighting in the suburbs of Damascus. We heard the thunder of grenades on our way to your palace.
Assad: When you have this kind of crisis, you cannot say you are as strong as before. The damage is much too massive. To be realistic, it will take time before we get over this problem. We don't have any other option than to believe in our victory.
SPIEGEL: How can you be so confident of victory when you need help from Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah?
Assad: Lebanon is a small country with a population of 4 million. In Damascus alone we have 5 million. Syria is too big for Hezbollah even if they want to send all their troops. We fought with them on the border with Lebanon against terrorists who attacked their loyalists, and we cooperated, and that was good.
SPIEGEL: So you could actually do without Hezbollah's help?
Assad: That's not what I said. I'm talking about the perception in the West and in the media that Hezbollah is fighting because the Syrian army cannot fight. Even if you want to make it a reality, you can't, because the proportion doesn't work.
SPIEGEL: Hezbollah are among the few who still support you. Russian President Putin appears to be slowly losing his patience with you. And the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, could find rapprochement with the US to be more important than your survival.
Assad: Putin is more supportive than ever. This has been proven by Russia's three vetoes against sanctions in the UN Security Council.
SPIEGEL: But he voted in favor of a resolution to destroy your chemical weapons.
Assad: It's a good resolution.
SPIEGEL: Because it prevented a US air strike?
Assad: There's not a single point in that resolution that's against our interests. The Russians see very clearly what we are doing here because they suffered from terrorists in Chechnya, and they know the meaning of terrorism.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean you are confident Moscow will deliver the S-300 air defense system you've been waiting on for months?
Assad: He said very clearly on many different occasions that he would continue supporting Syria, and that he's committed to the contract -- not only on air defense, but all kinds of armaments.
SPIEGEL: The international community will do everything possible to prevent you from acquiring more arms.
Assad: On what grounds? They don't have any right. We are a state, and we have the right to defend ourselves. We don't occupy others' lands. Why doesn't the international community oppose Israel when they get all these armaments? Germany sent Israel three submarines, and they occupy our land. We don't trust the West because of its double standards.
SPIEGEL: Even if Putin delivers the new air defense system, aren't you afraid that Israel will bomb it to pieces?
Assad: You cannot be afraid. When you are in a war situation, you don't do something because you're afraid of doing it. You have to strengthen yourself and not to allow your enemy to destroy your armaments or to win.
SPIEGEL: And if they try?
Assad: When that happens we can talk about it.
SPIEGEL: In the past you sounded more self-confident when it came to Israel.
Assad: No, we have always said we need peace and stability in this region. Even if you want to retaliate, you have to ask yourself the question: What would the result be? Now that we're fighting al-Qaida, in particular, we have to be cautious that we don't start a new war.
SPIEGEL: At what point will you be able to claim victory over al-Qaida?
Assad: The victory is stability. The first phase is to get rid of the terrorists. The second one, which is more difficult and dangerous, is to get rid of their ideology, which has infiltrated some parts in Syria. It cannot be that an eight-year-old boy tries to behead someone, which happened in the north. Or that children watch the beheading with jubilation, happy like they're watching a soccer match, for example. If we don't deal with this problem, which is more dangerous than the terrorists themselves, we're going to face a bleak future.
SPIEGEL: This scene wouldn't sound all that surprising if it had taken place in Somalia. But in Syria?
Assad: The brutality we are experiencing in Syria is incredible. People slaughtered a Christian bishop by slitting his throat with a small knife.
SPIEGEL: Do you still believe you can return Syria to its pre-war state?
Assad: In terms of stability, of course we can. If we stop billions in support for the terrorists from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the logistic support of Turkey, we could solve this problem in a few months.
SPIEGEL: Is it still possible to find a solution through negotiations?
Assad: With the militants? No. The definition of political opposition doesn't include an army. We will negotiate with whoever wants to lay down his arms and go back to normality. Since we discussed deserters before, I'd like to point out that it's going the other way too. People who used to be militants are fighting with the army now.
SPIEGEL: The international community blames you for the escalation of this conflict, whose end is not yet in sight. How do you live with this guilt?
Assad: It's not about me, but about Syria. The situation in Syria worries and saddens me; that's where my concern is. I am not concerned for myself.
SPIEGEL: Are your wife and three children still standing by you?
Assad: Of course, they never left Damascus for one moment.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes fear that something like what happened to Romanian President Ceausescu might happen to you? After a short trial, he was shot by his own soldiers.
Assad: If I were afraid, I would have left Syria a long time ago.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
- Part 1: 'In the End, a Lie Is a Lie'
- Part 2: 'The West Is more Confident in al-Qaida than Me'
- Part 3: 'We Don't Have any Other Option than To Believe in Our Victory'