Jonathan Tepperman. Foreign Affairs. Volume 94, Issue 2. March/April 2015.
The civil war in Syria will soon enter its fifth year, with no end in sight. On January 20, Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to discuss the conflict in an exclusive interview.
I would like to start by asking you about the war. It has now been going on for almost four years, and you know the statistics: more than 200,000 people have been killed, a million wounded, and more than three million Syrians have fled the country, according to the UN. Your forces have also suffered heavy casualties. The war cannot go on forever. How do you see the war ending?
All wars anywhere in the world have ended with a political solution, because war itself is not the solution; war is one of the instruments of politics. So you end with a political solution. That’s how we see it. That is the headline.
Your country is increasingly divided into three ministates: one controlled by the government, one controlled by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and one controlled by the more secular Sunni and Kurdish opposition. How will you ever put Syria back together again?
First of all, this image is not accurate, because you cannot talk about ministates without talking about the people who live within those states. The factions you refer to control some areas, but they move from one place to another-they are not stable, and there are no clear lines of separation between different forces. Sometimes they mingle with each other and they move. But the main issue is about the population. The population still supports the state regardless of whether they support it politically or not; I mean they support the state as the representative of the unity of Syria. So as long as you have the Syrian people believing in unity, any government and any official can unify Syria. If the people are divided into two, three, or four groups, no one can unify this country. That’s how we see it.
You really think that the Sunnis and the Kurds still believe in a unified Syria?
If you go to Damascus now, you can see all the different, let’s say, colors of our society living together. So the divisions in Syria are not based on sectarian or ethnic grounds. And even in the Kurdish area you are talking about, we have two different colors: we have Arabs more than Kurds. So it’s not about the ethnicity; it’s about the factions that control certain areas militarily.
A year ago, both the opposition and foreign governments were insisting that you step down as a precondition to talks. They no longer are. Given the shift in the Western attitude, are you now more open to a negotiated solution to the conflict that leads to a political transition?
From the very beginning, we were open. When you have a dialogue, it’s not between the government and the opposition; it’s between the different Syrian parties and entities. That’s how we look at dialogue. This is first. Second, whatever solution you want to make, at the end you should go back to the people through a referendum, because you’re talking about the constitution, changing the political system, whatever. You have to go back to the Syrian people. So engaging in a dialogue is different from taking decisions, which is not done by the government or the opposition.
So you’re saying that you would not agree to any kind of political transition unless there is a referendum that supports it?
Exactly. The people should make the decision, not anyone else.
Does that mean there’s no room for negotiations?
No, we will go to Russia, we will go to these negotiations, but there is another question here: Who do you negotiate with? As a government, we have institutions, we have an army, and we have influence, positive or negative, in any direction, at any time. Whereas the people we are going to negotiate with, who do they represent? That’s the question. When you talk about the opposition, it has to have meaning. The opposition in general has to have representatives in the local administration, in the parliament, in institutions; they have to have grass roots to represent on their behalf. In the current crisis, you have to ask about the opposition’s influence on the ground. You have to go back to what the rebels announced publicly, when they said many times that the opposition doesn’t represent us-they have no influence. If you want to talk about fruitful dialogue, it’s going to be between the government and those rebels. There is another point. Opposition means national; it means working for the interests of the Syrian people. It cannot be an opposition if it’s a puppet of Qatar or Saudi Arabia or any Western country, including the United States, paid from the outside. It should be Syrian. We have a national opposition. I’m not excluding it; I’m not saying every opposition is not legitimate. But you have to separate the national and the puppets. Not every dialogue is fruitful.
Does that mean you would not want to meet with opposition forces that are backed by outside countries?
We are going to meet with everyone. We don’t have conditions.
In the past, you insisted as a precondition for a cease-fire that the rebels lay down their weapons first, which obviously from their perspective was a nonstarter. Is that still your precondition?
We choose different scenarios or different reconciliations. In some areas, we allowed them to leave inhabited areas in order to prevent casualties among civilians. They left these areas with their armaments. In other areas, they gave up their armaments and they left. It depends on what they offer and what you offer.
I’m not clear on your answer. Would you insist that they lay down their weapons?
No, no. That’s not what I mean. In some areas, they left the area with their armaments-that is what I mean.
Hezbollah, Iran’s Quds Force, and Iranian-trained Shiite militias are all now playing significant roles in the fight against rebels here in Syria. Given this involvement, are you worried about Iran’s influence over the country?
Iran is an important country in this region, and it was influential before the crisis. Its influence is not related to the crisis; it’s related to its role, its political position in general. When you talk about influence, various factors make a certain country influential. In the Middle East, in our region, you have the same society, the same ideology, many similar things, the same tribes, going across borders. So if you have influence on one factor, your influence will be crossing the border. This is part of our nature. It’s not related to the conflict. Of course, when there is conflict and anarchy, another country will be more influential in your country. When you don’t have the will to have a sovereign country, you will have that influence. Now, the answer to your question is, Iran doesn’t have any ambitions in Syria, and as a country, as Syria, we would never allow any country to influence our sovereignty. We wouldn’t accept it, and the Iranians don’t want it either. We allow cooperation. But if you allowed any country to have influence, why not allow the Americans to have influence in Syria? That’s the problem with the Americans and with the West: they want to have influence without cooperation.
What do you think Israel’s agenda is?
They are supporting the rebels in Syria. It’s very clear. Because whenever we make advances in some place, they make an attack in order to undermine the army. It’s very clear. That’s why some in Syria joke: “How can you say that al Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”
You’ve said in past interviews that you and your government have made mistakes in the course of the war. What are those mistakes? Is there anything that you regret?
Every government, every person, makes mistakes, so that’s again self-evident; it’s a given. But if you want to talk about political mistakes, you have to ask yourself, what are the major decisions that you took since the crisis started? We took three main decisions: First of all, to be open to all dialogue. Second, we changed the constitution and the law according to what many in the opposition were saying, allegedly, that this is the reason of the crisis. Third, we took the decision to defend our country, to defend ourself, to fight terrorists. So I don’t think those three decisions can be described as wrong or mistakes. If you want to talk about practice, any official in any place can make mistakes, but there’s a difference between practice mistakes and policy mistakes.
Can you describe some of the practical mistakes?
I would have to go back to officials on the ground; there’s nothing in my mind. I would rather talk about policies.
I’m just wondering if there’s anything you did that you wish in retrospect you had done differently.
Regarding these three main decisions, they were correct, and I am confident about this.
In terms of lower-level practical mistakes, are people being held accountable, say, for human rights abuses, for the excessive use of force, or the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, those kinds of things?
Yes. Some people were detained because they breached the law in that regard, and that happens of course in such circumstances.
In terms of their treatment of civilians or protesters, is that what you’re referring to?
Yes, during the protests at the very beginning, yes.
Since the United States began its air campaign against the Islamic State, Syria and the United States have become strange kinds of partners and are effectively cooperating in that aspect of the fight. Do you see the potential for increased cooperation with the United States?
Yes, the potential is definitely always there, because we’ve been talking about or asking for international cooperation against terrorism for 30 years. But this potential needs will. The question that we have is, how much will does the United States have to really fight terrorism on the ground? So far, we haven’t seen anything concrete in spite of the attacks on ISIS in northern Syria. There’s nothing concrete. What we’ve seen so far is just, let’s say, window-dressing, nothing real. Since the beginning of these attacks, ISIS has gained more land in Syria and Iraq.
What about the air strikes on Kobani? Those have been effective in slowing down ISIS.
Kobani is a small city, with about 50,000 inhabitants. It’s been more than three months since the beginning of the attacks, and they haven’t finished. Same areas, same al Qaeda factions occupying them-the Syrian army liberated in less than three weeks. It means they’re not serious about fighting terrorism.
So are you saying you want greater U.S. involvement in the war against ISIS?
It’s not about greater involvement by the military, because it’s not only about the military; it’s about politics. It’s about how much the United States wants to influence the Turks. Because if the terrorists can withstand the air strikes for this period, it means that the Turks keep sending them armaments and money. Did the United States put any pressure on Turkey to stop the support of al Qaeda? They didn’t; they haven’t. So it’s not only about military involvement. This is first. Second, if you want to talk about the military involvement, American officials publicly acknowledge that without troops on the ground, they cannot achieve anything concrete. Which troops on the grounds are you depending on?
So are you suggesting there should be U.S. troops on the ground?
Not U.S. troops. Definitely, it has to be Syrian troops. This is our land; this is our country. We are responsible. We don’t ask for American troops at all.
So what would you like to see from the United States? You mentioned more pressure on Turkey…
Pressure on Turkey, pressure on Saudi Arabia, pressure on Qatar to stop supporting the rebels. Second, to make legal cooperation with Syria and start by asking permission from our government to make such attacks. They didn’t, so it’s illegal.
I’m sorry, I’m not clear on that point. You want them to make legal…?
Of course, if you want to make any kind of action in another country, you ask their permission.
I see. So a formal agreement between Washington and Damascus to allow for air strikes?
The format we can discuss later, but you start with permission. Is it an agreement? Is it a treaty? That’s another issue.
And would you be willing to take steps to make cooperation easier with Washington?
With any country that is serious about fighting terrorism, we are ready to make cooperation, if they’re serious.
What steps would you be prepared to make to show Washington that you’re willing to cooperate?
I think they are the ones who have to show the will. We are already fighting on the ground; we don’t have to show that.
The United States is currently training 5,000 Syrian fighters who are scheduled to enter Syria in May. Now, U.S. General John Allen has been very careful to say that these troops will not be directed at the Syrian government, but will be focused on ISIS alone. What will you do when these troops enter the country? Will you allow them to enter? Will you attack them?
Any troops that don’t work in cooperation with the Syrian army are illegal and should be fought. That’s very clear.
Even if this brings you into conflict with the United States?
Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army.
Part of what makes Washington so reluctant to cooperate with you more formally are the allegations of serious human rights abuses by your government. They include denying access for relief groups to refugee camps, indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, photo evidence provided by the defector code-named Caesar, who made a presentation to the U.S. Congress showing terrible torture and abuse in Syrian prisons. Are you prepared to take action on these issues in order to make cooperation with the United States easier?
The funny thing about this administration is that it’s the first one in history to build its evaluation and later decisions on social media. We call it a social media administration, which is not politics. None of these allegations you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence.
But Caesar’s photos have been looked at by independent European investigators.
No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else? For example, photos published at the beginning of the crisis were from Iraq and Yemen. Second, the United States in particular and the West in general are in no position to talk about human rights. They are responsible for most of the killings in the region, especially the United States after getting into Iraq, and the United Kingdom after invading Libya, and the situation in Yemen, and what happened in Egypt in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and terrorism in Tunisia.
That may or may not be true, but those are separate issues, and that does not absolve your government of responsibility.
No, no. The United States accused, so we have to answer that part. I’m not saying if there’s any human rights breach or infringement, the government has no responsibility. That is another issue. The second part of your question is about the allegations. They’re still allegations. If you want me to answer, I have to answer about something that is concrete, proved, and verified.
Are you prepared to categorically deny that there’s torture and abuse of prisoners in Syria?
If there’s any unbiased and fair way to verify all those allegations, of course we are ready. That would be in our interest.
Describe whether you think the war is going well from the government’s perspective. Independent analysts have suggested that your government currently controls 45 to 50 percent of the territory of Syria.
First of all, if you want to describe the arena-it’s not a war between two countries, between two armies where you have an incursion and you lost some territory that you want to regain. It’s not like this. We’re talking about rebels that infiltrate areas inhabited by civilians. You have Syrian terrorists that support foreign terrorists to come and hide among civilians. They launch what you call guerrilla attacks. That is the shape of this war, so you cannot look at it as being about territory. Second, wherever the Syrian army has wanted to go, it has succeeded. But the Syrian army cannot have a presence on every kilometer of Syrian territory. That’s impossible. We made some advances in the past two years. But if you want to ask me, “Is it going well?” I say that every war is bad, because you always lose, you always have destruction in a war. The main question is, what have we won in this war? What we won in this war is that the Syrian people have rejected the terrorists; the Syrian people support their government more; the Syrian people support their army more. Before talking about winning territory, talk about winning the hearts and minds and the support of the Syrian people. That’s what we have won. What’s left is logistical; it’s technical. That is a matter of time. The war is moving in a positive way. But that doesn’t mean you’re not losing on the national level. Because you lose lives, you lose infrastructure; the war itself has very bad social effects.
Do you think you will eventually defeat the rebels militarily?
If they don’t have external support, and no, let’s say, supply and recruitment of new terrorists within Syria, there will be no problem defeating them. Even today we don’t have a problem militarily. The problem is that they still have this continuous supply, mainly from Turkey.
So Turkey seems to be the neighbor that you’re most concerned about?
Exactly. Logistically, and about terrorist financing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but through Turkey.
Do you blame Erdogan personally? This is a man you once had a fairly good relationship with.
Yes. Because he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which is the base of al Qaeda; it was the first political Islamic organization that promoted violent political Islam in the early twentieth century. He belongs strongly and is a staunch believer in these values. He’s very fanatical, and that’s why he still supports ISIS. He is personally responsible for what happened.
Do you see any other potential partners in the region? For example, General el-Sisi in Egypt?
I wouldn’t talk about him personally, but as long as Egypt and the Egyptian army and the government are fighting the same kind of terrorists as in Iraq, of course, we can consider these countries eligible to cooperate with in fighting the same enemy.
Can you imagine a scenario in which Syria returns to the status quo as it was before the fighting started almost four years ago-in the sense that Syria is whole again, it is not divided, it controls its borders, it starts to rebuild, and it is at peace and a predominantly secular country?
We all believe Syria should go back to the way it was. We don’t have any other option, because if it doesn’t go back to its previous position, that will affect every surrounding country. It’s one fabric-it’s a domino effect that will have influence from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
If you were able to deliver a message to President Obama today, what would it be?
I think the normal thing that you ask any official in the world is to work for the interests of his people. And the question I would ask any American is, what do you get from supporting terrorists in our country, in our region? What did you get from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood a few years ago in Egypt and other countries? What did you get from supporting someone like Erdogan? You are the greatest power in the world now; you have too many things to disseminate around the world: knowledge, innovation, it, with its positive repercussions. How can you be the best in these fields yet the worst in the political field? This is a contradiction. That is what I think the American people should analyze and question. Why do you fail in every war? You can create war, you can create problems, but you cannot solve any problem. Twenty years of the peace process in Palestine and Israel, and you cannot do anything with this, in spite of the fact that you are a great country.
But in the context of Syria, what would a better policy look like?
One that preserves stability in the Middle East. Syria is the heart of the Middle East. Everybody knows that. If the Middle East is sick, the whole world will be unstable. In 1991, when we started the peace process, we had a lot of hope. Now, after more than 20 years, things are not at square one; they’re much below that square. So the policy should be to help peace in the region, to fight terrorism, to promote secularism, to support this area economically, to help upgrade the mind and society, like you did in your country. That is the supposed mission of the United States, not to launch wars. Launching war doesn’t make you a great power.