The newspaper El Pais interviewed the Syrian president at a turning point in the conflict. "War is evil, there are no" good wars ": civilians and innocent people are always paying the price for war."
Next month will be five years since the outbreak of unrest, plunging Syria into one of the bloodiest conflicts in stories Middle East. According to the UN, he took the lives of at least a quarter of a million people. Five million Syrians fleeing the war abroad. Europe has taken a million refugees, this is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the last hundred years. Trying to cross the Mediterranean, 3 drowned thousands of people in its waters.
Soon after the outbreak of the conflict, Bashar al-Assad, who became president after the death of his father in 2000, lost control of part of the country: large cities like Homs and Aleppo fell into the hands of armed groups. Recently, he managed to partially repel these strongholds of the opposition struggle, and his army launched an offensive to block the channels of communication and supplies between the armed forces and Turkey. All this happens with the uncompromising support of the Russian aviationproviding air support to Assad troops since September last year.
This Saturday, the Syrian president gave an interview to the Spanish newspaper El Pais in Damascus with heightened security measures. The interview took place at a time when Assad was already talking about the return of the entire territory of Syria and victory in the war, four days before the convocation of new peace talks in Geneva, in an atmosphere of obscurity regarding the entry into force of the cease-fire announced by the US and Russia on February 12, which should It took place last Friday, but was never implemented. Asad says his next task will be to fight the Islamic State (a terrorist group banned in Russia) in its very heart, its self-proclaimed capital, Ar-Raqqah.
Assad assures refugees that they can return home without fear of repression, and accuses Islamist governments, including Qatar and Turkey, of fomenting a conflict in Syria, on the scales of which, he said, are the interests not only of his country, but of the entire region in which the conflict is played out between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
El País: This week you allowed humanitarian access to the seven besieged zones. According to calculations, 486 has thousands of people living in these areas, many of whom have spent more than three years under siege. Why did this help come so late?
“The embargo imposed on Syria is not directed against the government, but against the Syrian people.”
Bashar Assad: In fact, it did not start yesterday. This happened from the very beginning of the crisis. We did not impose an embargo on any of the Syrian regions. It is necessary to understand the difference between the embargo and the military environment of a particular area: we are fighting with armed formations, and such actions are natural for security and the solution of military tasks. The problem with these areas is that the armed units controlling them confiscated food and other basic necessities from local residents and distributed them to their own people or sold them at a high price. We, as the government, did not hinder the delivery of aid, including those directed to zones controlled by the Islamic State (ISIL), including the city of Al-Raqqa in the north of the country, which is now controlled by ISIL, and earlier for three years controlled by the Al Nusra Front (al-Qaida local unit). We sent pensions to pensioners, civil servants' salaries and vaccines for children in these areas.
- That is, you continue to send food and salaries of civil servants to Ar-Raqqa and other bastions of ISIS?
- Exactly. Yes, we send wages to Ar-Raqqa, since, as a government, we believe that we are responsible for the entire Syrian people. So how can we refuse this in certain areas of our country? That would be wrong. And that is why I say that the sending of humanitarian aid has happened before. From the very beginning we allowed the entry of humanitarian aid and food.
- And such help will continue to do?
- Of course.
- Last week, Russia and the United States announced a truce. Does the Syrian government intend to comply with the cease-fire and the suspension of hostilities in Syria?
- Of course. Moreover, we stated that we are ready for this, but statements alone are not enough. It is important that we do on the ground. At the same time, I believe that the concept of a cease-fire regime is not entirely correct, since such a regime is established between two armies or two countries opposing each other. It would be better to talk about the suspension of military operations. Yes, we are talking primarily about a cease-fire, but there are also extremely important secondary factors: in particular, we cannot allow the terrorists to use the suspension of military operations to strengthen their positions. We must also ban other countries and - especially Turkey - to support terrorists with living strength, weapons and other means. Finally, there is a UN Security Council resolution on this issue, which was never adopted. If we do not fulfill all these requirements before the suspension of military operations, such a suspension will have a negative effect and only increase the chaos in Syria, which could lead to the actual division of the country. Thus, the suspension of military operations will have a positive effect only if all relevant requirements are met.
- In other words, despite the cease-fire, will the fighting, at least with individual armed units, continue?
"Refugees can return without fear of repression by the government."
- Yes, of course, if we are talking about, for example, ISIS, al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations and groups associated with al-Qaeda. Today, Syria and Russia speak of four groupings: these are Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam [Army of Islam] and the already mentioned Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.
- Your troops have already surrounded Aleppo, one of the opposition bastions. When do you plan to completely regain control of this city?
- In fact, we have already captured the city center, a significant part of it is under the control of government forces. Most of the population of the suburbs moved from the zone controlled by the militants to the government zone. It is no longer about the return of control over the city. Now it is necessary to block the routes of communication between Turkey and terrorist groups. It is this task that is facing us in the course of the operation in Aleppo, and we have partially fulfilled it, having recently blocked the main routes of communication. We could not completely isolate Aleppo from Turkey, but significantly complicated the interaction of Turkey and terrorists. And it is for this reason that Turkey began the bombing of the Kurds.
- What will happen after Aleppo? Does the Syrian army intend to reach Ar-Raqqi, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS?
- We plan to return the entire territory of Syria, but today we are fighting on more than ten fronts. We are moving towards Ar-Raqqah, but we are still far from her. Yes, we are attacking Ar-Raqqa in other areas as well, but how much time it takes for us depends on the result of ongoing operations. Therefore, we can not speak with any certainty about the timing.
- Russia is actively bombing the main positions of the opposition. Her intervention was a turning point in the conflict. Many believe that the initiative has passed to you. Could you achieve such a result without outside help?
- Without a doubt, Russian and Iranian support played a key role in the success of our army. But to assert that we could not achieve this on our own cannot be. It is unlikely that anyone will be able to confidently answer this hypothetical question. However, we certainly need help, and the reason for this is very simple: in one way or another, terrorists are supported by more than 80 countries. Some of them help them with money, provide logistic support, provide weapons and manpower. Others offer them political support, in various international forums. Syria is a small country. We could fight on our own, but in the light of the unconditional support of the terrorists, it is obvious that we also need international support. But, I repeat, your question has a purely hypothetical value, and I cannot answer it.
- Speaking about the air operation of the Russian VKS, you are not concerned about civilian casualties? On Monday, the hospital was bombed, 50 people died. The US blamed Russia for this incident.
- Later, a number of US officials said that the perpetrators are unknown to them. Such inconsistency in statements is typical for the USA. However, no one can provide specific evidence pointing to the perpetrator of the incident and showing how it happened. As for the victims, this is a problem common to all wars. Of course, I am immensely sorry for all the innocent victims of this conflict, but this is war. War is evil, there are no "good" wars: civilians and innocent people are always paying the price for war.
“And how do you explain to your people, the Syrians, the fact of the presence in your land of a foreign army, whose activities lead to civilian casualties.” Do you think this is something inevitable?
“I am not interested in power. If the people want, I will stay. ”
- No, there is no evidence that the Russians attacked civilian targets. They are very careful in choosing targets and daily bomb the bases and positions of terrorists. But the Americans killed many civilians in the north of Syria. Up until now, there has not been a single incident between Russians and civilians. Russians do not attack civilians, moreover, most of their operations take place in rural areas.
- Speaking of foreign armies: what will be your response if Turkey and Saudi Arabia realize their threat to send troops to Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS?
- As you said yourself, this is an excuse. If this happens, we will consider them as terrorists. We will defend our country. Such actions constitute aggression. They have no right to political or military intervention in Syria. It will be a violation of international law, and we, Syrian citizens, will have no choice but to fight and defend our homeland.
- Turkey began bombing Syria from its territory.
- This is true, and before the bombing, Turkey sent terrorists to us, pursuing the same goals and using various means to achieve them. Turkey has been involved in events in Syria since the very beginning.
- Saudi Arabia attempted to unite the opposition at a conference in Riyadh. Militants associated with al-Qaeda also attended the meetings. Do you view any part of the armed opposition as a legitimate group with which to negotiate?
- Do you mean the groups involved in the fighting?
"We are moving towards Ar-Raqqah, but we are still far from her."
- No, from a legal and constitutional point of view, anyone who has used weapons against the people and the government is a terrorist, whether in your country, our country or any other country in the world. It cannot be argued that these groups have any legitimacy. They can gain it by laying down their arms and integrating into the political process. This is the only possible way in the conditions of any country, the way of reforms and amending the law, the constitution and the composition of the government. You need to achieve your goal through the political process, and not with a gun in your hands.
- So you consider everyone who fights with weapons in their hands, terrorists?
- If they do not express readiness to integrate into the political process - yes. Only in the latter case we will have no problems with them.
- Regarding the combatants, whatever their intentions: if they lay down their arms and want to return, can they do it?
- We grant them amnesty. This process has been going on for two years and has accelerated significantly in recent times. Many of them laid down arms, some joined the ranks of the Syrian army and are now fighting with ISIS with the support of the Syrian army and Russian aircraft.
“But if you say that all those who fight armed against the government are terrorists, with whom are negotiations being held in Geneva?”
- In Geneva, it was supposed to gather everyone a little. On the one hand, they are terrorists and extremists trained in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are associated with al-Qaeda. On the other hand, this is the opposition, both “in exile” and the Syrian one. We are ready to negotiate with this second part, with Syrian patriots associated with their homeland, but we cannot negotiate with terrorists. Therefore, the conference failed.
- What about the leaders and opposition activists who were imprisoned in a Syrian prison before the outbreak of the conflict in 2011?
- All of them have long been released from prison, most of them included in the ranks of the opposition.
"If Turkey and Saudi Arabia send their troops, we will consider them as terrorists."
- All of them were released before the 2010 year, including a number of terrorists sentenced to imprisonment, for example, for five years, who served their time and were released, joined the terrorist groups after the crisis began.
- Do you have proof of your words?
- Yes. One of them, Zahran Allush, was recently killed. He was sentenced to prison for his association with al-Qaeda, and when the crisis began, he formed his own terrorist group.
- According to some sources in Syria today 35 000 is fighting foreign jihadists, among them 4 000 are immigrants from Europe. The Spanish government has said that approximately 300 of them have Spanish citizenship. What happens to them if they fall into the hands of the Syrian army?
- Spanish citizens?
- Foreign jihadists, in general?
“First of all, we treat them like any other terrorists.” From a legal point of view, citizenship is irrelevant here, but in the case of extradition, the procedure here is determined by the institutional links between the countries involved.
- In this regard, what, from your point of view, attracts so many foreigners to Syria?
- First of all, the support provided to them. They get very serious support from outside. The main source of financing for terrorists is Saudi Arabia. They put them on airplanes and send them to Turkey, from where they get to Syria. In addition, they are attracted by chaos, since chaos is the most fertile ground for terrorists. The third factor is ideology, since they belong to al-Qaeda. This region for our religion, for Islamic culture, in its importance stands directly behind Mecca, Jerusalem, along with other holy places. They believe that they can create their own state here and extend their influence from here to other areas. They believe that they can come here and fight here for Allah and for Islam, for them it is jihad.
- If the government succeeds in regaining control over the entire Syrian territory, will you start the political process? Will you be ready to go to the polls again?
- The most correct step would be the creation of a government of national unity uniting all political movements interested in governing the country. Such a government should prepare the conditions for the creation of a new constitution, because if we want to talk about the future of Syria and discuss it with various parties, look for a way to solve internal problems, we must start with a discussion of the constitution. Without a doubt, such a constitution must be put to a national referendum. And on the basis of a new constitution, early elections should be held. If the people and various parties demand elections, they will take place. But the decision of the political side of the issue has nothing to do with my personal opinion.
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
“After 10 years, I want to be able to save Syria.”
- More important is how I see my country, I am part of my country. Therefore, after 10 years have passed, I want to be able to save Syria. But this does not mean that I will remain president. I am talking about my vision of this period. Syria will be fine, and I will be the man who saved my country. This is my job today, and this is my duty. These are the obligations that my position and my status as a Syrian citizen impose on me.
- And yet, will you stay in power in 10 years?
- I do not set myself such a goal. I am not interested in power. If the Syrian people want me to be in power, I will stay, otherwise I will leave. If I can’t help my country anymore, I will have to leave immediately.
“Let me quote a part of the UN Human Rights Council’s report on Syria published on February 3:“ A number of people detained by the government were beaten to death or died from wounds received during torture. ” It also says that the government committed war crimes.
- We are talking about the same thing that the Qataris did about a year ago, having falsified the report and included unconfirmed photographs of wounded people and based on information from dubious sources. This report was then sent to the UN. This is part of a media campaign against Syria. This is the root of the problem: the West and its media company. Unverified information is taken, and on its basis, Syria is accused of crimes, it is responsible and measures are taken.
“The world was shocked by a photo of a boy, Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee found dead on the coast of Turkey. What did you feel when you saw this photo?
- One of the biggest tragedies of the Syrian conflict are immigrants fleeing the country for various reasons. But if we leave aside feelings, the question that the Syrian society as a civil servant asks us is what we are going to do next. What measures were taken to ensure that the refugees returned to their country, and even better did not leave it. There are two points here. First, we must fight terrorism, because terrorists not only threaten the civilian population, but also deprive them of their basic livelihood. Secondly, it is an embargo imposed on Syria by Western countries, first of all, the United States, which strongly affected the quality of life of the population, especially in terms of health care. We must fight these causes to keep the tragedy from dragging out.
- You mentioned that some of the refugees are being saved from ISIS, but there are those who say that they are fleeing from the government and from military operations conducted by the government in Syria.
“I can cite facts that refute these words, facts that you can see during your stay in Syria: the majority of those who lived in the territory under the control of terrorists, chose to migrate to the zone controlled by the government. If people run from the government, why do they come under its control? Your words are not true. However, today, when war is going on, bullets are flying, there are clashes between the government and terrorists in a whole range of areas, the population of such areas naturally tends to be far away, but this does not mean that they are running from the government. Among the migrants in the territory controlled by the government there are relatives of members of illegal armed groups.
- According to international estimates, about five million refugees left Syria. One million of them ended up in Europe. What guarantees can you give these people for a free return to the country without fear of reprisals?
- Of course, they can return, moreover, it is their right to return. If they are not talking about terrorists and murderers, they did not run away from the government. Some of them - I think that we are talking about a large number - are supporters of the government and have fled not from it, but from, as I said, the difficult living conditions that have deteriorated significantly over the past five years. They can certainly return without fear that the government will take any punitive measures against them. We want people to return to Syria.
- What can your government do to stop the flow of refugees, leading to such a number of drowned and drowned in the Mediterranean?
- As I said, it depends not only on Syria, but also on the rest of the world. First, Europe must lift the embargo from the Syrian people. It is not directed against the Syrian government, but against the Syrian people. Secondly, Turkey must stop sending terrorists to Syria. Thirdly, we, as a government, must fight terrorists, there cannot be two opinions, and we must raise the standard of living of citizens with all the means at our disposal so that the Syrians remain in their homeland. This is the only way to return our citizens, to convince them to return to their homeland. I am sure that most of them want to return to Syria.
- Having come to power, you promised to carry out democratic reforms, marking the beginning of the so-called “Damascus Spring”. Some believe that if you carried out these reforms faster, you could save many lives. In particular, the opposition and the United States argue that if you gave up power, many victims could have been avoided. What do you think about it?
- The question is: What is the connection between your words and the financing of terrorists by Qatar, the sending of weapons and the direct support of terrorists? What is the connection between your words and the role of Turkey in supporting terrorists? How does this relate to the presence on the territory of Syria of ISIS and the Front al-Nusra? This relationship is incorrect. If it is necessary to change the chairman of the government in any regime, both in your country and in any other country, it is necessary to act by political means. You can not take up arms. Weapons cannot be used to change regimes and establish democracy. Democracy cannot be achieved at gunpoint, and the US experience in Iraq proves it. The same happens in Yemen. President Ali Abdalla Saleh (Ali Abdalá Saleh) refused power for your reasons. What happened in Yemen? Is it better in this country? This is fundamentally wrong, and there is no connection here. Democracy is achieved through dialogue and the development of society to a democratic one. True democracy comes from society itself. We must accept each other. This is the crucible in which various ethnic groups, sects and religions are fused together. How can they learn to accept each other? But only when they reach such an understanding, a political acceptance of each other, then true democracy will prevail. This question does not depend on the president. An attempt was made to tie the problem to a specific person, to show that this is a simple problem, that if the president abandons power, everything will be fine. Such an approach is unacceptable.
- After five years, taking into account all lost lives and destroyed monuments, what would you have done differently?
"We are ready for dialogue with the Syrian patriots, but not with the terrorists."
- If we talk about fundamental things, we stated from the very beginning that we would fight terrorists and look for opportunities for dialogue. We have established a dialogue with everyone except the terrorists. In addition, we gave terrorists the opportunity to lay down their arms and return to normal life by offering them a general amnesty. This is an integrated approach to solving the problem. Today, after five years, I do not think that such an approach was a mistake and I am not going to abandon these principles. The implementation of the steps is different: it depends on the performers, institutions, involved participants and individuals. Anyone can make a mistake, and this happens. If it were possible to change something, correct any mistakes that were made on the ground, I would do just that if I had the opportunity to turn the clock back.
- In other words, from your point of view, were the protests in the cities of Dara and in Damascus from the very beginning been terrorist actions carried out by leaked foreign agents? Or did you consider these first protests against the government somehow different?
- At first, it was about a mixed composition of protesters. First, Qatar paid the protesters to show them on Al-Jazeera and to convince the world community that the people rebel against their president. They managed to bring all 140 thousands of people to the streets within Syria, so it didn’t worry us too much. Then the masses of protesters were flooded with extremists who opened fire against both the police and the protesters in order to shake the protest moods. When this plan fell through, we sent weapons to terrorists. But were there any real demonstrators among them? What did they fight for? Such people, of course, were, but they were not all. Thus, it cannot be said that they were all terrorists, but there were terrorists among them.
- You have been to Spain twice; in addition, the Presidents of the Government, José Maria Aznar and José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, visited Syria during your rule. How has your relationship with Spain evolved since that time?
- Spain, in general, opposes any risky decisions in Syria. We appreciate it. Spain did not support military action against Syria and said that this would only further complicate the situation. Spain does not speak about overthrowing the president or interfering in our national affairs. Spain believes that the process of solving the problem should be political. And this is absolutely correct. But at the same time, Spain is part of the European Union, which limits it in decisions by the will of the European Union. We hope that Spain will convey the same message and bring our political point of view on the conflict to the attention of the European Union.
- Which of the Latin American countries provide you with the greatest support?
“In general, which seems to me a regrettable and surprising fact, the countries located far away from Syria have a much more realistic vision of the events in Syria than the Europeans closer to us, who consider us the backyard of Europe. I speak both about the official authorities, and about simple citizens. They know us well and support Syria in international forums, while their position remains unchanged from the very beginning of the crisis.
- The largest Syrian diaspora lives in Brazil. What is your relationship with the Brazilian government?
- We have good relations with them, as well as with Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba and all the countries of Latin America. Our relations have not changed because of the crisis, they are getting a fuller vision of the situation every day and more and more support Syria. Their position is very different from the European.