Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during an interview to the American magazine Foreign Affairs in Damascus..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad, partook in an interview with Foreign Affairs published Monday, in which he discussed the current state of the country as well as Iran's, Hezbollah's and Israel's involvement in the three year old civil war.
While the Syrian strongman acknowledged the costs of the war, among them 200,000 Syrians killed and three million externally displaced, he reiterated that the Syrian people believe in the country's unity, refusing to admit that the nation's is besieged by ethnic or sectarian divisions and asserting that the war must end with a political solution. Assad then elaborated on the possibility of a political solution when pressed on the subject of a peaceful transition of power, suggesting that any such change must come as a result of a popular national referendum in which the people voice their opinion.
Syria is nominally a republic, but it's government is widely considered to be authoritarian. The country's most recent elections were held in June of 2014, during the third year of its ongoing civil war. Although two other candidates ran for the presidency, The UN's Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, asserted that the elections were "incompatible" with Geneva protocols and would damage reconciliation with the opposition. Assad won the election with 88% of the vote, resuming his fourteen year presidency and the war effort.
Assad claimed that he was open to dialogue with anyone, including representatives from rebel factions, but claimed that unlike him, they do not have the Syrian people's best interest at heart. Assad referred to a legitimate opposition as an opposition integrated into the government system. "The opposition in general has to have representatives in the local administration, in the parliament," Assad said, adding that he will not recognize groups if they are "a puppet of Qatar or Saudi Arabia...paid from the outside", likely referring to some Islamist groups who have received funds from the Gulf's Sunni monarchies who themselves see Damascus as an Iranian puppet.
Taking another opportunity to point the proverbial finger at Qatar, Assad dismissed the interviewers suggestion that the US's rational for not trusting his regime were allegations of flagrant human rights violations leveled at Damascus, among which are the use of chemical gas against rebels and civilians earlier in the conflict. The Syrian President staunchly claimed that investigations by European actors into these alleged atrocities were funded and manipulated by the Qatari government, then obscured the issue by drawing in claims of Washington's own atrocities in Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Asked directly if he denies any claims of abuse or torture against prisoners by Syrian authorities, Assad veered away from a direct answer, suggesting only that if proof was provided he would verify if they were true.
Although the interviewer used more diplomatic language, Assad was prodded on Iran's role in the conflict. Asked if he is worried about Iran's increased influence in the conflict, about the Islamic Republic's Quds Force and Hezbollah's role in fighting for his regime, Assad was defiant but elusive. Claiming that Iran has no ambitions in Syria and that he would not allow another country to manipulate the handling of it's affairs, Assad claimed that the region's complex composition makes cross-border influences inevitable. "In the Middle East... you have the same society, the same tribes, going across borders," Assad explained, justifying Hezbollah's and Iran's dealings in the civil war by suggesting that "when there is conflict and anarchy, another country will be more influential in your country."
However the Syrian president was more terse in another line of questioning. When asked about the veracity of claims made by a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that Iran's supreme leader ordered his forces to construct missile producing facilities, Assad simply said little more than "no", but did not provide a conclusive answer to the statements made to Germany's Der Speigel
earlier this month.
Iran has been very vocal about potential consequences for a recent strike on a Hezbollah convoy in Syria attributed to Israel that killed a senior Iranian general. Recent statements by one IRGC commander warned Israel to be prepared for "destructive thunderbolts", while Hezbollah has been more measured in its rhetoric concerning retaliation, suggesting that a response will come, but not immediately
The interviewer's inquiries about Iran's and its proxies finally brought the conversation with the Syrian leader to the subject of Israel and though Assad was obtuse about the position of Hezbollah in its support for the Syrian government, saying that the militia's involvement"could be positive" but also have "negative effects," he took a firmer stance on the recent strike on a Hezbollah convoy, asserting that an operation staged in the Golan and against Israel has not been executed since 1974, and that in contrast, Israel has been attacking Syria through that same area for two years.
Discussing the possible Israeli agenda for carrying out the strike that killed the son of Hezbollah's former military chief as well as an Iranian general, Assad flatly accused Israel of trying to undermine the Syrian army's efforts against the rebels, even repeating an evidently popular war-time joke. "How can you say that al-Qaida doesn't have an air force. They have the Israeli air force," Assad jested.
Finally, in some closing words, Assad gave his perspective on the region. "Syria is the heart of the Middle East," said Assad. "If Syria is sick, the whole world will be unstable."