Mr. President, I would like to start from the beginning. Less than a decade ago, Syria was building its relations with the west, and you were implementing World Bank-proposed reforms, and Mr. Kerry, until 2010, I believe, used to call you "my dear friend," and somehow, overnight, everything changed, and you became a dictator and a Hitler and so on. What's your opinion about that? How can you explain this dramatic change?
In fact, I haven't changed, neither have we changed our policies, values or principles. The problem lies with the West, and it's not a new problem. It is related to the independence of our country. In fact, this is the problem of the west with many other countries, including Syria. During the period you refer to concerning relations with the West, between 2008 and 2010, relations were good, but in fact they were not based on mutual respect. For instance, France wanted Syria to play a role with Iran concerning the nuclear file. What was required was not to be part of that file, but to convince Iran to take steps which are against its interests. We refused to do that. They also wanted us to take a position against resistance in our region before putting an end to Israeli occupation and aggression against the Palestinians and other neighboring countries. We refused that too. They wanted us to sign the Euro-Association Agreement which was against our interests and was meant to turn our country into an open market for their products while giving us a very small share of their markets. We refused to do that because it is against the interests of the Syrian people.
These are a few examples of that relationship, and that's why they took that decision. The same is happening now with Russia; two decades ago, Russia was a close friend of the West. Suddenly, Russia became an aggressive country; and the West started to demonize President Putin, and the same propaganda was used in both the Syrian and Russian cases. So, the problem has to do with the independence of these countries. The West wants client states ruled by puppets. This is the core issue with the West. It has nothing to do with democracy, freedom, or supporting the people in the region. An example is what happened in Libya and the continuing killing in Syria with Western support.
But in those times, the beginning of the so-called American war on terrorism, Syria used to help the CIA in the rendition programs and interrogating and torturing people. Why did you join that program?
You mean before the crisis?
We have been suffering from extremism for more than five decades. And terrorism, in its stark shape, appeared in Syria in the 1970s. At that time we called for international cooperation to fight terrorism. Nobody cared about that then. In the West, they were not aware of this problem. That's why we have always been ready to help and cooperate with any country that wants to fight terrorism. And for that reason we helped the Americans, and we are always ready to join any country which is sincere about fighting terrorism. We will never change our position in that regard, before, during, or after the crisis. The problem of the west is that it did not understand how to deal with this issue. They believed that fighting terrorism is similar to a computer game, which is not true. Fighting terrorism should be through culture, the economy, and in different fields.
Regarding this question of terrorism, you heard about yesterday's and today's events in France, what are your comments about that?
When you talk about terrorism, about killing civilians, and regardless of the political position, agreement or disagreement with the people who have been killed, this is a case of terrorism; and we are against killing innocent people anywhere in the world. This is our principle.
We are one of the countries which best understand this issue because we have been suffering from terrorism for the past four years and we lost thousands of innocent lives in Syria. That's why we sympathize with the families of those victims. However, and at the same time, we want to remind many people in the West that we have been talking about these repercussions since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. We have been saying, you shouldn't support terrorism and provide it with a political umbrella, because this will reflect on your countries and your people.
They didn't listen to us. Western politicians were short-sighted and narrow-minded. What happened in France yesterday proved that what we said was true. At the same time, this incident brought European policies to account, because they are responsible for what happened in our region, for what happened in France yesterday, and maybe what happened earlier in other European countries.
In your opinion, what is the best way to fight terrorism?
If we want to talk about the reality now, we need to fight terrorists because they are killing innocent people, and we have to defend these people. This is the most important and urgent method to deal with it. But if we want to talk about the crisis, fighting terrorism doesn't need an army, but needs good policies. We should fight ignorance with culture and education, should build a good economy to fight poverty, and there should be an exchange of information among the countries concerned with fighting terrorism.
The problem cannot be addressed in the way they addressed it in Afghanistan, I mean what they did in Afghanistan in 2001. A group of Congressmen visited Damascus at that time and they were talking about invading Afghanistan in revenge for what happened in New York earlier. I said this is not how you should do it, because fighting terrorism is similar to treating cancer. You do not treat cancer by cutting it, but by extracting it. What happened in Afghanistan is that they cut the cancer, and the result was that it spread much faster. That's why, as I said, we should focus on good policies, on the economy, and on culture and education.
So, you used to repeat that to European politicians but they didn't listen.
Do you feel that the European Union policies or the policies of European Union member states have changed towards Syria in the past year somehow?
There is a slow and shy change, but they do not acknowledge that they were mistaken. They do not dare do that because they went too far: they demonized Syria, the state, the president, the army, and everything. What can they say to their public opinion now after four years? Shall they say they were mistaken? They cannot do that. That's why they say that they acknowledge the existence of terrorism in our region, but add that it was all because of the president. They do not acknowledge anything else. So, there is some change, and we have contacts with some officials on different levels. These contacts are not announced of course, so we do not mention the names of the officials or the countries. These officials said that the European policies were wrong and that they wanted to rectify these policies. We don't have a problem with that, because it is not a problem of love and hate, it is about the interests of states. But I don't think they will make fast changes, because we haven't seen any serious efforts made by any European country so far.
Do you have some special opinion about the foreign policy of the Czech Republic towards Syria?
If we look at the European Union in general, we see that its member states did not have the same position during the crisis. The Czech Republic and Romania were among the countries which maintained their relationship with Syria during the crisis, and this is important, although it doesn't mean that they supported our government or agreed with it about everything or about some things, or anything of that kind. It means that as long as these relations were maintained, they were able to understand what's going on in a better manner. So, concerning the Czech Republic, I can say that our relations were not very good before the crisis, but during the crisis it was shown that it had a much clearer vision than other countries. That has a number of reasons, but most importantly by maintaining these relations, it was able to see, analyze, and understand what is actually happening, and by so doing it can be more objective than other European countries.
You mentioned demonizing Syria and yourself personally. I just want to hear your explanations about a couple of these allegations. For example, there is still a popular thesis that your refusal to step down is the sole reason for the war, for what is going on in the country. What do you have to say about this?
No president can remain in his position, in such circumstances, without the support of the Syrian public opinion and the Syrian people, particularly that we are facing an aggression by the United States, most European countries, many regional countries, including some countries neighboring Syria like Turkey, Jordan, and some parties in Lebanon, and the Gulf countries with the billions of dollars they spend in Syria. How can we stand fast without the support of the Syrian people? This is self evident and cannot be denied by anyone except if they are talking about a superman; and in Syria we do not have a superman, we have a man. So, this shows that the Syrian people support their president; and consequently, can we talk about people supporting their president in order to have more killing and terrorism? We are talking here about the majority of the Syrian people, in their millions. Is it possible that all these people support the president only to be exposed to more terrorism? Isn't that an accusation to the Syrian people that they do not have a realistic vision? This doesn't make sense.
In fact, they support the president because they know that what happened in Syria from the beginning was because of the money spent by Qatar in support of demonstrations to create propaganda that there is a revolution in Syria. It was also because of the money spent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to support terrorists with money, weapons, and logistic support. And then it was because of Turkey which has provided all logistic support and supply chancels to terrorists in Syria. There is also Jordan and some parties in Lebanon. This is the reality. This is what happened in Syria. It is not about the president or about him being in this position. The other question is: what is the relationship between the existence of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and the president? Can we say that the cause of 9/11 in New York was President Bush, and that if Bush was changed, then 9/11 wouldn't have happened? This is unrealistic and illogical. They know that, but they insist on continuing to tell these lies for the reasons I mentioned earlier. They do not dare acknowledge that they were mistaken, that they misread the situation in Syria, that they listened to ignorant officials in countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and that they sold their values for petrodollars. They allowed themselves to be led by these countries. This is the real reason for what happened in Syria not that the president did not step down or that he remained in his position.
A second, very popular and still unchallenged allegation in the Czech Republic is that you are the mass killer of your own people. What do you think about that?
It is the same answer. How can a president kill his people, and consequently his people become against him, and the whole world against him; and nevertheless he remains in his position? What is the power that keeps the president in this position? It is the same answer. This is unrealistic, as I said. The issue has nothing to do with stepping down. We are defending our people. I enjoy the support of the Syrian people because I defend this country. No president can kill his people, fight terrorists, fight the world, and yet remain in his position. This is unrealistic.
And the newest one is that you are partner with ISIS, because the Syrian Army is not fighting ISIS, and ISIS isn't fighting the Syrian Army.
So, this means that I support ISIS in order for them to kill our soldiers, take our military bases, and at the same time benefit from ISIS. How is that? Once again, there is a contradiction in this. There is another widespread allegation in the west: that we are benefitting from the American strikes. Some of them said that. How? If we support ISIS, then we do not benefit from the American strikes, and if they say that we benefit from the American strikes, then we are against ISIS. Regardless of all that, I stress once more that we are fighting all sorts of terrorists, whether ISIS, Jabhet al-Nusra, or others. There is no single reason to say that we support ISIS. We don't have any reason.
Regarding ISIS, it looks like, at least from Europe, that radical Islam is gaining ground in the region, and it will be spreading and spreading. Do you think so, or is it just some kind of fad which will disappear in ten years' time, or something like that?
This radical Islam, from our perspective as moderate Muslims, is not Islam. There is no extremism in any religion, whether it is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. All religions are moderate; and when there is extremism, it is a deviation from religion. If we want to use the term "radical Islam" as you said, I think it is true, because radical Islam has been instilled in the minds of the people of the region for more than four decades with the influence of Saudi money and the Wahabi interpretation of Islam, which is a very extreme interpretation, a deviation from true Islam, and constitutes the base of terrorism in this region. So, as long as money continued to flow in the same direction and for the same reasons, through religious schools and religious TV channels, and similar things, it will become more widespread, not only in our region, but in Europe too. What happened in France yesterday is a strong indication of that. I mean that this terrorist incident which happened in Paris did not happen in vacuum. It did not happen because some people wanted to avenge that publication of some cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. In fact, this is the normal and natural result of the extremist, closed-mined, and Dark Ages ideology which originates from Saudi Arabia. So, there is no reason to say that this ideology will recede in the near future unless the world puts an end to the flow of money in the wrong direction and in support of this extremist ideology which leads to this kind of terrorism.
Last year, you said that the major battles in the Syrian war will be over, and now it will be time to start reconstruction in the country. Is that statement still valid?
In fact, when war happens in any country, the most important area of the economy becomes the reconstruction of the country. This will be the largest part of our economy, and we have started to draw plans for the process of reconstruction. It's not only about rebuilding the infrastructure, but also about rebuilding human beings. But now I'm talking about the economy.
I'm asking about reconstruction because many countries support the war against Syria now, but as soon as reconstruction starts, they will be eager to take part in the process in order to make some money from rebuilding the same Syria which they are destroying now. Do you have some plans for this reconstruction, and what countries will be joining this effort?
We have our plans of course, and we started in some areas where national reconciliation has been achieved and life is back to normal. It is a long-term plan and will include different parts of Syria where terrorists have caused destruction. As for the countries which might take part in reconstruction, the process will be selective and will not be open to everyone. I don't believe that the Syrian people will accept the participation of any company from a hostile country which has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for shedding Syrian blood during the crisis. But since you are a Czech journalist, I can say that the Czech Republic might be one of the countries that might take part in the reconstruction process because it was more objective than most European countries, despite the pressures exercised on its government and officials to cut relations with Syria. That's why we should show our appreciation for this position, and I can say that the door will be open for this kind of cooperation in this field of the economy.
This sounds good for us, but I can't imagine reconciliation happening in Syria after four years of war. I believe it is a very difficult process to try to overcome the hostilities which grew during this period. Can you describe to us the efforts you are making in this direction?
Fortunately, you are raising this question at a time that reconciliation efforts have succeeded in many areas, and we are not talking about an imaginary thing or about wishful thinking. This has actually happened. In the beginning, the question we put to ourselves was the same question you are raising now. Will we succeed? Can people forget the hostilities and the blood? This is not easy, and it wasn't easy in the beginning, particularly if you are dealing with different groups, some of which are extremist groups and reject reconciliation, like Jabhet al-Nusra and ISIS in some regions.
These groups have actually succeeded in undermining these efforts. But in other regions, where the majority of the groups insisted on achieving reconciliation, reconciliation succeeded, and the groups involved in it were able to drive the groups opposed to it out of their areas. If we want to talk about reality, the people who used to fight each other, on the side of the government or against it, have gone back to their normal life, rebuilt their friendships, and are dealing with each other on daily basis because they were friends and neighbors before the crisis and before the events.
In fact, reconciliation efforts succeeded in most areas because the people who took part in them realized that before reconciliation they were moving in the wrong direction. They also realized that they were used as tools in return for the money flowing from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in the service of the closed-minded Muslim Brotherhood ideology of Erdogan in Turkey. They realized that they have done harm to their country, so they turned in the right direction, and here reconciliation was successful. So, my answer is that the process has succeeded, and that the doors are open now more than any time before for reconciliation. By time, more Syrians will join the reconciliation and more Syrians will realize that they cannot go on in the same direction, unless we want to destroy our society, ourselves, and our country completely.
A kind of reconciliation might happen at the end of January in Moscow where your government will be discussing with at least some members of the exiled opposition. Do you expect some concrete results, and what do you think of this Russian initiative?
I think that the Russian position is that they support Syria in fighting terrorism, which is very important. At the same time, it paves the way before a political path. Our position is similar, for we do not want to miss any political opportunity, and this is what we are trying to do. If we succeed, it's a good thing. If we don't, we will not lose anything. So, we are going to Russia not to start a dialogue, but to meet these different personalities to discuss the basis of dialogue when it starts: like the unity of Syria, containing terrorist organizations, supporting the army, fighting terrorism, and things like this. As to what I expect from this meeting, I think we should be realistic, since we are dealing with personalities.
When we talk about opposition, we do not talk about someone opposing something. Anyone can oppose anything. Opposition, in the political sense, is a party or an entity which has representatives in the local administration or in parliament who can influence their people and act in the best interest of their country, not in the best interest of foreign powers. I believe this is a universal concept. Now, we are talking about different personalities, some of them are patriotic, some do not have any influence and do not represent an important part of the Syrian people, and some are puppets in the hands of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, or the United States, and consequently they do not act in the best interest of their country. There are other personalities which represent an extremist ideology.
Consequently, it is too early to judge the potential for the success of failure of this step. Nevertheless, we support this Russian initiative, and we believe that we should go as a government in order to listen to what they have to say. If they have something useful and is in the best interest of the Syrian people and the country, we will go forward, and if not, we will not deal with them seriously.
According to media reports, Russians are coordinating this process with the United States, and it means that these two superpowers, as it looks, can find a common ground, maybe for the first time, regarding Syria. Do you think this is the beginning of the end of the Syrian war?
You mean when they reach this common ground?
Yes, if they managed to agree on something, this will be positive.
Any good relation between Russia and the West, and especially the United States, will reflect positively on the region, particularly in this period, and especially concerning Syria. But I would like to say that the solution should come first and foremost from within Syria. Second, if we want to talk about international relations and their impact, they need to be serious. When we talk about a common ground, what is the nature of this common ground? How serious is the United States in fighting ISIS? So far, what it is doing is cosmetic, while the Russians are very determined to fight terrorism. In the same context, how serious is the United States in influencing Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – and these countries are not allies of the United States, but puppets in its hands – to what extent the United States will influence them to stop the flow of money, weapons, and terrorists into Syria. Unless these questions are answered, it is impossible to reach this common ground.
So far, the United States is playing games and playing for time. What the United States ultimately wants is to use Russia against Syria. It wants Russia to exercise pressure on Syria. This is the common ground the Americans are looking for, and not the common ground necessary to fight terrorism, allow the Syrian people to determine their future, and respect the sovereignty of all countries including Syria. So far, we do not see this common ground. The Russians are trying their best to find it, but I don't believe that the Americans will respond to this effort positively.