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?"
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."
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.
'The Situation in the World Has Worsened in Every Respect in the Last Eight Years'
SPIEGEL: You make no mention of guarantees for Israel.
Assad: Then Israel will have to make peace, and not just with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
SPIEGEL: whose moderate Fatah movement, following a bloody internal conflict with Hamas, now holds power in the West Bank only.
Assad: Hamas must be included. Nothing will work without Hamas. As the next major step, it will be important to establish unity with in the Palestinian people. There can be no peace without unity. How they manage to do that is the Palestinians' business. I cannot and do not wish to apply pressure to Hamas in this context.
SPIEGEL: Then who should sign a treaty on behalf of the Palestinians?
Syrian children carry Palestinian and Syrian flags along with pictures of crying children during a sit-in protest against Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
SPIEGEL: Large segments of the Israeli government seem to believe that Hamas could be eliminated.
Assad: Hamas will not disappear. Hamas will not raise the white flag. Hamas has the trust of the people, and anyone who wishes to destroy it must destroy an entire people.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe the Palestinians and Israel are capable of complying with a possible agreement and stopping the smuggling of weapons for Hamas?
Assad: They cannot prevent smuggling as a whole. But monitoring by a third party would certainly be helpful. I think that the Turks could take on this task. The Turks are highly trustworthy and influential, and they have good relations with Israel and the Arab world. On the other hand, the Egyptians share a border with Gaza, and the French are also very engaged.
SPIEGEL: And the Germans?
Assad: The German foreign minister is active in the region, but he hasn't come to Damascus yet. We would be pleased to see him here, and we would welcome it if the Germans, in general, played a larger role.
SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel blames Hamas alone for the Gaza war. Do you accept the notion that Germany, because of its history, gives special consideration to Israel?
Assad: No. We understand the feelings of guilt stemming from your past. And we see that they influence Germany's Israel policies. . They shouldn't anymore.
SPIEGEL: Despite all of your criticism of Israel, you yourself negotiated with the Israelis -- with the help of Turkish mediators -- until recently. Do you have hopes of regaining the Golan Heights, which were occupied in 1967?
Assad: There are no longer any negotiations, not with this Israeli government. We had no great hopes before, because it was a weak government. We need a strong party on the other side to be able to make peace.
SPIEGEL: Would your ideal partner be someone like hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom you have already negotiated in the past and who is a favorite to succeed (Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert in the election on Feb. 10?
Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal: "Whether you like Hamas or not, it is a political entity that no one can ignore."
SPIEGEL: Isn't that far more applicable to Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon with close ties to Iran and Syria?
Assad: Hezbollah presents no danger to anyone.
SPIEGEL: Did you lose your influence with Hezbollah because you withdrew from Lebanon?
Assad: Hezbollah is an independent organization that is part of the government today. And Lebanon is an independent nation, whose sovereignty we accept.
SPIEGEL: Many say that this conciliatory attitude toward Beirut is the consequence of Syria's involvement in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus could face an international tribunal in this context.
Assad: We are not worried about the proceedings. All investigators have emphasized our cooperation. We hope that the real perpetrators will be exposed.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Washington counts Syria among the rogue states, partly because of your close relations with Tehran and Iran's nuclear bomb ambitions.
Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a visit in Tehran on August 3, 2008: "Good relations with Washington cannot mean bad relations with Tehran."
SPIEGEL: Other Arab heads of state clearly see the threat of an Iranian bomb and are concerned about Iran's growing influence. They fear dominance by the Shiite country.
Assad: The Americans are stoking these fears with their information policy. Washington is interested in the embargo, with which it hopes to weaken Iran.
SPIEGEL: Israeli politicians have developed concrete plans to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. What would such an attack mean for the Middle East?
Assad: That would be the biggest mistake that anyone could make. The consequences would be catastrophic and would destabilize the region for the long term.
SPIEGEL: You yourself experienced what Israel is capable of in the summer of 2007, when the Israeli air force leveled a complex of buildings in northeastern Syria. You reacted to this attack with great restraint. Why?
Assad: We could have struck back. But should we really allow ourselves to be provoked into a war? Then we would have walked into an Israeli trap. The facility that was bombed was not a nuclear plant, but rather a conventional military installation.
SPIEGEL: But inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency found traces of uranium during their inspection. How do you explain this?
Assad: That uranium did not come from us. Perhaps, the Israelis dropped it from the air to make us the target of precisely these suspicions. If we had in fact had something to hide, we would not have allowed any inspectors into the country.
SPIEGEL: The inspectors would like to take additional samples and inspect other Syrian facilities. Why are you no longer allowing the experts into the country?
Assad: We gave them the opportunity to conduct their research. This is a political game. They are trying to pillory us. We will not let that happen.
SPIEGEL: So you have no ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction, not even chemical weapons?
Assad: Chemical weapons, that's another thing. But you don't seriously expect me to present our weapons program to you here? We are in a state of war.
SPIEGEL: Do you work closely together with countries like North Korea and Iran as part of these weapons programs?
Assad: We work trustingly together with many countries on research programs.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect greater cooperation from the new American president? Will you approach Barack Obama with your own proposals?
Assad: We speak of hopes, not expectations. The Bush administration brought us two wars. The situation in the world has worsened in every respect in the last eight years. Everything has gotten worse, including economic development. The Americans must withdraw from Iraq. The new US administration must seriously commit itself to the peace process. We must help it to do so, together with the Europeans.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't rapprochement with Washington upset your Iranian friends?
Assad: We are independent. No one can tell us what to do. Our actions are determined solely by our interests. Good relations with Washington cannot mean bad relations with Tehran.
SPIEGEL: It is possible that President Obama will ask you to convince Iran not to build nuclear weapons.
Assad: We would like to contribute to stabilizing the region. But we must be included and not isolated, as has been the case until now. We are willing to engage in any form of cooperation that is also helpful when it comes to America's relations with other countries.
SPIEGEL: Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton has indicated that she will seek dialogue with Syria and probably Iran, but she also said that Damascus would have to change its irresponsible, "dangerous" behavior.
Assad: It depends what she means by that. I define our responsibility by our national interest. If we can agree on that point, then I have no problem with her statement.
SPIEGEL: Isn't the lack of unity in the Arab world an even bigger problem?
Assad: The Arab world is divided, no doubt. For example, we have had no direct dialogue with Egypt on the central problem of the Gaza war. We are not familiar with Cairo's specific position, because we have been unable to come to terms with Egypt in the last two years. It is not necessarily easier for us to talk to France, for example. But at least the French are interested in talking to us.
SPIEGEL: Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that, in the Middle East, there can be no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.
Assad: This is truer than ever. Peace without Syria is unthinkable.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath and Mathias Müller von Blumencron. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission