Interview with Bachar Assad
11 May 2003

HE ALSO ASKED Assad to rein in Lebanon’s Hizbullah, a terror outfit that operates with Syrian complicity. The U.S. focus on Syria heightened during the recent war in Iraq, when Syria allowed both military supplies and volunteers to flow across its border into Iraq. In Assad’s first interview with a U.S. publication, he talked with NEWSWEEK Senior Editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth about the American demands and the prospects for peace between Israel and Syria.

NEWSWEEK: Secretary Powell said you had agreed to close the headquarters of some Palestinian rejectionist groups here in Damascus. Did you?
Bashar Assad: There are differences in priorities between us and the U.S. administration. When Secretary Powell talked about the offices, we asked him to talk about all the issues concerning our two countries in a package … Our priority is to restore our territory. 

You mean the Golan Heights?
Yes, the Golan.

 What do you mean by closures: expelling the leaders or moving the offices elsewhere?
This is a question I posed to Secretary Powell. These are not offices really. They are houses where these groups do media activities. We spoke with Powell about all these activities.
The U.S. contends that these “offices” are involved in directing terrorist operations in the territories and in Israel.  You consider these offices to be involved in terrorist activities, but they are not. 

Have you closed some offices?
You use the word “closed.” I talked with Mr. Powell about stopping “activities,” not closures. The [Palestinians] have information offices and can appear on TV. But [restricting them] is related to the Golan—to resuming the peace talks on the Syrian track.

 Did you give Powell some assurance that there would be some restrictions placed on these groups?
We talked about all these issues but no final decision was made. We are still talking.
 There have been stories in the Israeli press about recent meetings between a Syrian official and an Israeli over starting up peace negotiations. Is there any truth to this?
This is the Israeli way—they try to make it appear as if Syria is working in secrecy. Why should we create back channels? This does not give you popular support … which is very important if you are engaged in a peace process. Neither now nor in the future will Syria engage in secret negotiations.

 Would Syria be willing to engage with Israel in peace talks?
The important thing for us is to restore our territory completely, and this is guaranteed in [United Nations] Security Council resolutions. If any Israeli government is ready to engage on these terms and restore our territory, we have no problem.

 Do you demand that Israel agree to give back, in advance, what former prime minister Ehud Barak offered, or will you negotiate without conditions?
If you want to negotiate, you need a basis. The basis is the Madrid conference.

 Your father, Hafez Assad, came close to making peace with Barak.
No, not Barak but with Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin in 1995. With Barak, we did not achieve anything.

 Do you view this Israeli government as a partner for peace?
We don’t trust [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon because he definitely doesn’t want to make peace … but it’s nothing personal. 

You don’t trust Sharon?
Nobody trusts Sharon, not only me. None of the officials that I have met say that he wants peace…. 
Prime Minister Barak risked his career in an effort to make peace, but Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat turned the offer down, so Both made mistakes.

 Did you make a mistake in opposing the war with Iraq, keeping Iraqi oil flowing to Syria and allowing weapons to go across your border into Iraq?
We were not close to [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] and did not have an embassy in Baghdad. I never met him or talked with him on the phone. What you said about the oil is true. We had economic relations with Iraq. What you said about this government allowing armaments to go to Iraq is not correct. [But] arms were smuggled into Iraq by individuals; the government had nothing to do with it. 

Did Iraqi regime leaders come here during the war?
Yes, some of them came to the border. They weren’t allowed to come in. Some of them were captured by the Americans. 

Didn’t some come here?
Somebody came before [the war].

 Their families?
We allowed families to come to Syria, women and children. But we were suspicious of some of the relatives—that they had positions in the past and were responsible for killings in Syria in the ’80s.

 Didn’t Powell ask you to stop Iran from supplying Hizbullah with weapons via Damascus?
He talked about supplying Hizbullah. They do not get arms via Syria. We give them political support because they want to get back their lands. 

Would you consider stopping the political support?
As long as they don’t do any terrorist acts, we are supporting them. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Hizbullah the “A team” of terror.
That’s false. They have not killed anyone outside of Lebanon where their land is occupied.

 Are you hoping to have a better relationship with the U.S.?
We are working for it. Cooperation in combating terrorism is evidence.

 The U.S. has introduced the “road map” in an effort to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli peace. In the past, Syria has been viewed as a spoiler.
We don’t have any relations with Palestinians ... so we are not able to spoil. I can talk about the concept: for the last two years, they talked about security before a political solution. [But if] you get a political solution [that] doesn’t satisfy all parties, you won’t have security. You should first have the political solution. We won’t interfere. Our concern is the Golan.

 Don’t you have to engage in talks with Israel to get back the Golan?
There’s no other way. You should have negotiations to have peace. 

It is said that your father made a strategic decision to go for a peace treaty with Israel and that he prepared people in Syria for such a move. Do you agree with your father’s decision?
Yes, definitely … He made the decision but I had the same feeling. 

When did your father make that decision?
In 1990, we took the decision for peace.

Some in Israel say that you are more extreme than your father, more involved than he was with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Is this so?
It’s just a lie. I became president in July 2000. In September of that year, the intifada started. The mood in the region changed ... It seemed as if the Israelis did not want peace. It was not that we changed our mind about peace.

 Why did you allow volunteers to cross your border into Iraq during the war?
These volunteers went through unsealed borders. The government of Syria had no relation with these volunteers. 

I thought the Syrian government facilitated their entry into Iraq.
We only have two official checkpoints from which you can enter Iraq, but the border is 500 kilometers. How can you close it? I told Mr. Powell, “You have an army; you control it.” 

Saddam Hussein is gone. No one seems to be sorry.
Nobody is sorry. It’s good that he’s gone ... but [the outcome] should be better. 

Are you worried about U.S. military action here?
Powell said there are no plans for U.S. military actions against Syria.

 Do you believe him?
Yes, Powell is the rational wing [of the Bush administration].

Are you hoping to have a better relationship with the United States?
We are working for it. Cooperation in combating terrorism is evidence. We helped save the lives of Americans last year. 

What is your response to stories that Iraq put its weapons of mass destruction in your country during the war?
Why would Syria let them put these weapons in this country? There’s no benefit for Syria. 

Syria is said to have a chemical and a biological weapons program. Is that true?

If you don’t, why won’t you sign the chemical-weapons treaty?
Because Israel did not sign it. 

Isn’t it time to withdraw your troops from Lebanon and let that country become a free and sovereign state?
This is related to a peace treaty, to a complete [Israeli] withdrawal.

The Israelis withdrew from Lebanon.
They didn’t withdraw completely. They still occupy Shebaa Farms [a disputed area that Lebanon claims but is historically part of Syria].

Many in the U.S. believe that there is a new Middle East. Saddam’s gone, and the administration is trying for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. Where will Syria fit in?
We have played a role in this region for years ... not related just to the will of the U.S.

Are you going to adjust to the new situation?
We are going to be active.

You can move with the train or stay by the road.
I can walk parallel to the train and sometimes come close and sometimes get into the train and sometimes leap to another car. There is not only one train.

Will you stop the funding of rejectionist groups?
All the Arabs support the Palestinians and send them money. You cannot stop that. No one in our area calls it terrorism. They are talking about freedom