Assad: The captain doesn't flee his ship during a storm

The West lies and falsifies evidence to engineer wars, says the embattled Syrian president.

This interview with the Syrian strongman Bashar Assad was held in the Presidential Library in Damascus, with the noise of artillery fire from the outskirts of the Syrian capital resounding in the background. His discussion with myself and a representative from the Argentine state news agency took more than an hour and a half. It was the first time that Assad had spoken to the Spanish-speaking media since the bloody civil war started in early 2011. But it was also the third time in seven years that we have met; this time his position seemed far more severe and hard-line than on the two previous occasions.
Why has the crisis in Syria become more widespread and acute than similar events in other Arab countries?

Many different internal and external factors have contributed to the crisis, the most important being foreign intervention. But the Syrian people have resisted all these different interventions, and we are still doing so. It’s about defending the country.
Do you know that the UN is estimating that more than 70,000 people have died in the war so far?

We need to ask ourselves who is coming up with these figures and how credible their sources are. All the deaths are terrible, but many of the dead they mention are foreigners who came to kill Syrian people. And we mustn’t forget that many Syrians have disappeared. How many of the dead are Syrian, and how many are foreigners? How many have disappeared? We can’t provide a precise figure. Of course it is always changing because the terrorists will sometimes kill and bury their victims in mass graves.
Have your troops used excessive, disproportionate force in their response to the uprising?

How does one decide whether excessive force has been employed? What is the formula? It’s difficult to be objective when approaching things from that angle. One responds to the terrorism he is faced with. At first it was local terrorism, and then it started to come from overseas, and the weapons they brought were more sophisticated. The debate here is not the amount of force used or the type of weapons but the degree of terrorism we have suffered, to which we have a duty to respond.
When this crisis began, was there no chance of starting a dialogue to avoid this outcome?

At first the demands were reformist in nature, but it then became clear that this was a front. We have made reforms, we changed the constitution, we changed the laws, we annulled the state of emergency and announced a dialogue with political opposition forces, but the terrorism increased with every step we took. Terrorism cannot be a path to reform. What does a Chechen terrorist have to do with reforms in Syria? The most recent figures have around 29 different nationalities fighting in Syria. That’s not logical.
You denounce the presence of foreign militias in Syria fighting against you, but it is also said that there are fighters from Hezbollah and Iran fighting with your troops.

Syria and its 23 million inhabitants do not need any human support from any country. We have an army and security forces. We don’t need Iran or Hezbollah for that. We do not have fighters from outside Syria. There are people here from Hezbollah and Iran, but they have been coming and going in Syria since long before the crisis.
Do the reforms to the constitution you mention include unrestricted freedom of the press?

Maybe you have heard of a new press law that was declared together with a package of laws...We have started with a greater goal, which is to build a dialogue with political forces. That dialogue will lead to a Magna Carta, which will require a referendum among the people. This constitution will provide greater freedom. The new laws to be decreed will be based on the new constitution, and obviously they will include political freedoms and media freedoms. But we can’t talk about freedom of the press without having greater political freedom in general.
With regard to that dialogue, what is your view of the international conference on Syria planned for the end of this month between Russia and the United States?

We have welcomed the dialogue between the Russians and the Americans, and we hope that it will result in an international meeting that will help the Syrian people. But we do not believe that many western countries really want a solution in Syria. We do not believe that many of the forces who support the terrorists want a solution to the crisis. We support and applaud the efforts, but we must be realistic. There cannot be a unilateral solution in Syria; two parties are needed at least.
Is it the forces currently fighting or the great powers who don’t want a solution?

In practice, the opposition forces are linked to foreign countries and cannot make a decision for themselves. They live on what comes from outside, they receive funds from foreign countries, and they do what those countries decide. They are one and the same, and it is they who announced that they don’t want a dialogue with the Syrian state, most recently last week.
But when you mention dialogue, who among your opponents are you referring to?

We are willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk, without exceptions. As long as Syria can make a free and sovereign decision. But that does not include terrorists. No state talks to terrorists. When they put down their arms and join the dialogue, then we will have no objections. Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal.
If the dialogue makes progress, can you envision a timetable for the opposition forces to hand over their arms?

They are not a single entity, they are different groups and bands, not dozens but hundreds. They are a mixture, and each group has its local leader. There are thousands of them, and who can unify thousands of people? That is the question. We can’t discuss a timetable with a party if we don’t know who they are. When they have a unified structure, then we can answer that question.
Have you considered stepping aside in order to reach a definitive solution? Are you prepared to resign?

Whether I remain or not depends on the people. It is not my decision whether I stay or go, that is the decision of the people. The people will decide during the elections in 2014.
But your leaving power has been presented as a condition for ending this conflict...I am an elected president and it is the people who will decide whether I stay or not. Someone saying that the Syrian president must go because the US wants it or because the terrorists are demanding it, is completely unacceptable.
President Obama has indicated that he is not considering intervening in Syria, but US secretary of state John Kerry has said that any progress must include your leaving your post.

I don’t know whether Kerry or anyone else has received a mandate from the Syrian people to decide whether someone should stay or go. Any decision about reforms in Syria will come from Syria and neither the US nor any other state can intervene. In any case, to resign would be to flee. The country is suffering a crisis right now and the captain does not flee from his ship during a storm. He will get the ship back to port safely and only then will decisions be made. I will not run from my responsibilities.
France, Great Britain and recently Kerry himself have all stated that your army used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, against the civilian population...

We shouldn’t waste our time on these allegations. Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction. They say that we used them in residential areas. If a nuclear bomb were dropped on a city or a suburb and the death toll was 10 or 20 people, would you believe me? The use of chemical weapons in residential areas would mean killing thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that?
To whom do you attribute the allegation then?

The issue of chemical weapons was raised when terrorist groups used them in Aleppo, in Khan al-Assal, a few months ago. We have gathered the evidence: the missile used and the chemical substances. We have analyzed these substances and sent a letter to the UN Security Council asking them to send a mission to investigate. The US, France and Great Britain found themselves in an embarrassing situation and said that they wanted to send a mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons in other areas where it is alleged they were used. They did this so as not to have to carry out an investigation in the area where it actually took place. One member of the commission, Carla Del Ponte, announced last week that it was the terrorists who were using chemical weapons but the UN ignored her statement.
Do you believe that this allegation might pave the way for a military intervention in Syria?

It is probable that the issue would be used as a prelude to a war against Syria. We haven’t forgotten what happened in Iraq. Where were Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? The west lies and falsifies evidence to engineer wars, it is a habit of theirs. Of course any war against Syria would not be easy, it wouldn’t be a simple excursion. But we can’t discard the possibility of their waging war.
What is your basis for saying this?

Israel already attacked last week (the bombings on the outskirts of Damascus). It is a clear probability, especially after we have managed to beat back armed groups in many areas of Syria. Then these countries sent Israel to do this to raise the morale of the terrorist groups. We expect that an intervention will occur at some point although it may be limited in nature.
You say that your opponents want to install a religious extremist government in Syria. Do you really think that the Americans are cooperating with Qatar or Saudi Arabia to help an extremist Wahhabi regime take power?

The west only cares about whether governments are loyal or not. They want a servile government that will do what they want, regardless of the form it takes. But what happened in Afghanistan refutes this attitude. They supported the Taliban and on September 11 they paid a very high price. The dangerous thing is that the Wahhabi states want to promote extremist thought throughout the population and in Syria we believe in a moderate form of Islam and will resist it with all the means at our disposal.

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