He receives us at the door, at the entrance to a one-story house located on the hills of Damascus. No protocol, no security measure: we are not searched, nor are our recording devices inspected. “Here is the house where I read, where I work. There are only this room, a conference room, and a kitchen. And, of course, the Internet and television. My wife Asma often comes here, too. Here I am productive; at the presidential palace, that is not the case.” For nearly two hours, he covers all topics, without evading any question. He takes obvious pleasure in discussion and uses his hands to emphasize his arguments.
On the eve of his visit to France, President Bashar al-Assad is confident, relaxed, talkative. The isolation imposed on Syria by Washington and the European Union for about four years is breaking down. The entente between the government and the Lebanese opposition in May 2008 has turned the page. “They have misunderstood the position of Syria and distorted our views. But the accord on Lebanon has brought people to reality. They must accept that we are part of the solution not just in Lebanon but also in Iraq and Palestine. They need us to combat terrorism in order to achieve peace. They cannot isolate us, nor can they solve the region’s problems by manipulating such words as ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ ‘black’ and ‘white.’ You need to negotiate, even if you do not agree on everything. . . .”
As the impending formation of a new Lebanese government is announced, how does Mr. Assad see the future relations with Beirut? “We are ready to solve outstanding issues. Since 2005, we have exchanged letters on the demarcation of borders. At the same time, I also said to the Lebanese President, Mr. Emile Lahoud, and the Prime Minister that we were willing to open an embassy in Beirut. But, for that, it was necessary to have good relations and this was no longer the case after the 2005 elections.” President Assad indeed feared that Lebanon would become a rear base to destabilize the Syrian regime. Now, this concern has faded away, and Syria can establish diplomatic relations with its neighbor. A source close to the president announced that, upon the formation of a government of national unity, Mr. Walid Moallem, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, will visit Beirut to discuss outstanding issues, especially with Prime Minister Siniora.
Mr. Bashar al-Assad will participate, on the 13th of July, in the launching ceremony of the Union for the Mediterranean in Paris, which doesn’t stop him from expressing certain misgivings about the project. When the Euro-Mediterranean process (aka Barcelona process) was launched in 1995, he says, European officials “thought that if we developed economic relations among the participants, that would contribute to peace. Still, there must be a peace process.” There was one in 1995, but that is no longer the case today: “If you don’t start a political dialogue now, that is, if you shy away from real problems, if you can’t advance towards peace, there won’t be room for any other initiative, whether you call it Mediterranean or by any other name.” Even though he is pleased that the final declaration of the summit of the Mediterranean Union would include a paragraph on “political dialogue,” he still warns against another failure, “because then trust will disappear for a long time, and our societies will evolve towards conservatism, extremism.” . . .
This idea obsesses him, and he returns to it several times. “Terrorism is a threat to all humanity. Al-Qaeda is not an organization but a state of mind that no border can block out. Since 2004, following the war in Iraq, we have seen, in Syria, development of al-Qaeda cells, which don’t have a link to the organization but feed on books, brochures, and especially all that circulate on the Internet. I fear for the future of the region. We must change the soil that nurtures terrorism. This requires economic development, culture, an education system, tourism — and also an international exchange of information on terrorist groups. The army alone cannot solve this problem, as the Americans are trying to do in Afghanistan.”
What does he hope for his country in the next five years? “I hope that our society will be more open and that the new generation will be as modern as that of the 1960s. And I also hope that it will be more secular within a more secular regional environment.” An astonishingly frank confession testifying to the profound crisis of Arab societies. . . .
And that helps us understand why peace seems more necessary than ever to the Syrian president. Since 2003, he has made many statements on his willingness to resume negotiations with Israel.1 After the Lebanon war of 2006, he has clearly distanced himself from the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “I don’t say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace — peace with Israel” (Der Spiegel, September 24, 2006). The response of Mr. Ariel Sharon first and then Mr. Ehud Olmert has been a flat rejection: “You cannot trust this regime,” they were heard saying, especially in Washington. However, in May 2008, Tel Aviv and Damascus announced the opening of indirect negotiations under the auspices of Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister.
Why this change in the Israeli position? “The Lebanon war of 2006 has taught everyone that we cannot solve a problem by war. Israel is the greatest military power in the region and Hezbollah is smaller than any army. And what did Israel achieve? Nothing.” The president recalls that, after that war, many US delegations whose positions are close to Israel’s came to Damascus. In December 2006, the Baker-Hamilton commission called for a dialogue between Washington and Damascus, and in April 2007, Ms. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, met Mr. Assad. “Yet,” he continues, “the biggest obstacle to peace is the White House. This is the first time a US administration has advised Israel not to make peace.”
Mr. Assad is aware that it won’t happen tomorrow. He recalls that the Israeli opinion, if the polls are to be believed, is opposed to a full handover of the Golan. “After eight years of paralysis [the negotiations were suspended in 2000], after the war against Lebanon, after the attacks against Syria, trust does not exist. What we are doing in Turkey is to test the Israeli intentions. We don’t trust them, and the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.” The Israeli bombing of a Syrian site — a nuclear site according to Tel Aviv — in early September 2007 has not severed contacts between the two parties yet, and President Assad appears serene: an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team has visited the site in question, and he is confident that the team has found no evidence of an illegal nuclear activity in Syria.
How can direct and serious negotiations between Israel and Syria be re-launched? “We want to make sure that the Israelis are ready to return the entire Golan, and we also want to establish the common ground of negotiation, i.e. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, as well as major issues to consider: border security, water, and bilateral relations.”
The president knows that the negotiations will require the intervention of a powerful mediator, the United States, which has to await the arrival of a new president in the beginning of 2009. But in the meantime, it is necessary to move forward. During the negotiations between Hafez al-Assad and Ehud Barak (then Israeli Prime Minister) in 1999-2000, many breakthroughs were made on the thorniest issues. “I said that 80% of the problems were solved back then. It’s an order of magnitude. If we start from scratch as Israel wants to do today, we will lose more time. We would like France and the European Union to encourage Israel to accept the result of the 1999-2000 negotiations.” Several times, he expresses the hope that France and the European Union will play a complementary role to that of the United States. Except on the Syrian desire to reclaim the entire Golan, he suggests that there can always be compromise. Thus, on security, Israel demanded in 2000 that an early warning station remain under its control in Syrian territory, a demand unacceptable to Damascus who cannot tolerate an Israeli military presence on its territory. Finally, the two parties reached an agreement: US forces would be present at the station.
Many officials not only in the United States but also in France and Europe are hoping that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations will push Damascus to break with Tehran. The president’s response is prudent. “We have been isolated by the United States and Europe. The Iranians have supported us, and yet I’m supposed to tell them: I don’t want your support — I want to be isolated!” he says with a laugh. More seriously, he takes up the subject again: “We don’t need to agree on everything to have relations. We see each other regularly for discussion. The Iranians do not try to change our position — they respect us. We make our own decisions, as in the time of the Soviet Union.” And he insists: “If you want to talk about stability, and peace in the region, you must have good relations with Iran.”
Regional stability and peace are not an end in itself, but they create, for President Assad, a context allowing him to address the real problems. “Our first priority is poverty. The poor don’t care about statements you make every morning, what is your view on this or that. They want food for their children, schools, a health system. For that, we need economic reforms. Then come the political reforms. They can go together, but the former must advance faster.”
Syria’s economic growth rose by about 1% per year during his presidency, reaching 6.6% in 2007. But that is not enough to absorb hundreds of thousands of young people entering the job market every year. Millions of Syrians are looking for jobs abroad. The president says that liberalization reforms are underway, and that opening up the banking sector has been beneficial, since the Gulf investments have never been so important, and he also hopes for major French investments from Lafarge, Total, in the electricity sector, and so on.
And political reform? On this subject the president assumes a most polite tone and explains the “delays” due to the regional situation. We were confronted, he says in essence, with two threats: extremism fuelled by the Iraq War and attempts at destabilization that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. At that time, we were preparing a new law on political parties, but we had to table it. With the end of the current US administration, “2009 will be the year when we can begin serious political reforms, provided that nothing ominous happens in the region, that there is no more talk of war, and that extremism declines.”
What about political prisoners? “Hundreds of them were released before and after my becoming president,” replies the president. “We have more than one thousand individuals arrested for terrorism — do you wish them to be freed?”
He then engages in dialogue about Michel Kilo, an intellectual arrested in May 2006 and sentenced to three years in prison for having contributed to “weakening the sense of national unity.” He never used or advocated violence. “But,” says the president, “he signed a joint declaration with Walid Jumblatt [the Lebanese Druze leader] two years ago, when Jumblatt was openly calling on the United States to invade Syria and to get rid of the regime. According to our laws, he became an enemy, and if one is found as such, one goes to prison. For Michel Kilo’s release, a presidential pardon is required — I am ready to grant it on condition that he recognizes his mistake.” Neither the argument that keeping Kilo in prison damages the image of Syria nor the fact that the man is firm in his nationalist convictions and hostile to American policy manages to sway the president.
Referring to the hopes raised by his election in 2000 and the so-called “Damascus Spring” — a form of political thaw — he speaks of illusions: “It’s like young people who want to marry and believe that marriage is wonderful. They have strong emotions. But then comes the shock of reality. We cannot change things in a few weeks.” And he adds: “When you play chess, you cannot change the rules. You must follow them.” Is that why he says today, “We will need a generation to implement a real reform”? Clearly, he is serving a hard apprenticeship of power.
Brought back to Damascus by his father after the accidental death of his elder brother Bassel in 1994, Mr. Bashar al-Assad, who was trained as an ophthalmologist in London, spent six years in the shadow of Hafez al-Assad, without any official function. “The president never did anything for me. He didn’t make me vice president, minister, or head of the party. He wanted me to do my apprenticeship. I never thought I would be president, but I was sure that I would participate in public life. In Syria, sons do what their fathers do.”
Upon the death of his father, he was chosen to succeed him, after a change in the Constitution. According to him, there were two reasons for this choice. “People voted for me because I was the son of someone who had brought stability to the country and in our society a son cannot but be the image of his father. On the other hand, some knew that I was a modernizer. I headed the Syrian Computer Society, I introduced the Internet and satellites, etc. And perhaps others, even without any love for me, preferred me to the old guard of the party.”
How does he see the future of his country? Realistically, he said: “The ship is not steered by me, it has many captains, Europeans, Americans, so. . . .”