Syrian President Bashar al-Assad once again cast doubt on his US counterpart Donald Trump’s claim that Islamic State ringleader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US military operation last month, calling the much-publicized operation a “fantastic play” staged by the Americans.
He said that foreign Islamic State suspects could be tried in Syrian courts, raising the prospect that the regime could use them as leverage against the West.
President Bashar al-Assad affirmed that the war against terrorism in Syria hasn’t finished yet in spite of the significant advance in it, and that terrorism still exists in northern areas, and the support provided to terrorists is still continued by Turkey, the U.S., Britain and France.
In an interview given to French Paris Match Magazine, President al-Assad said that the presence of French troops on the Syrian territory without the acceptance of the Syrian Government is considered an occupation, and a form of terrorism and what is required from the French Government is to return to the international law and to stop everything that could increase the bloodshed, killing and suffering in Syria.
The President pointed out that there is no cooperation between Syria and the U.S. in anything as there couldn’t be a cooperation in combating terrorism with those who support terrorism, indicating that Bush killed a million and a half Iraqis under the pretext of democracy ; Sarkozy contributed to killing hundreds of thousands of Libyans under the pretext of freedom for the Libyan people; and today, France, Britain, and America are violating international law under the pretext of supporting the Kurds, who are a part of the Syrian population, not an independent group.
President al-Assad noted that every terrorist in the areas controlled by the Syrian state will be subject to Syrian law, indicating that Erdogan is trying to blackmail Europe in the issue of extraditing terrorists or any convicted person to their states, and this this is an immoral act.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Question 1: Good morning. I met you five years ago, specifically in November 2014. At that time, your government controlled only a third of the country. Today, your army has returned to the border regions with Turkey. Do you feel that you have won the war?
President Assad: Let’s be precise, it is not my war to win or lose. The narrative pushed by the West is: the war of the President who wants to remain in office; while in fact, it is a national war – the Syrians’ war against terrorism.
You are correct in your statement that we have made significant progress in this war, since we last met, but that doesn’t mean that we have won. We will win when terrorism is eliminated. It is still present in certain areas in the north, and what is more dangerous is that support for this terrorism still continues from Turkey, and from Western countries – whether it’s the United States, Britain, or France. That’s why it is too early to talk about victory.
Question 2: Do you really think that France continues to support terrorism?
President Assad: Definitely; in previous periods, they were supplying weapons. This may have changed in the previous months, or last year, but let’s put things into perspective: when French forces come to Syria without an invitation from the legitimate government, this is occupation. There’s no real difference between supporting terrorism and providing military forces to occupy a country. It is the same context, but with different titles.
Intervention: But the French came to support the Kurds who were fighting ISIS. That was their mission.
President Assad: But, can we send Syrian forces to fight terrorism in France, without the request of the French government?! Globally, states are governed by international law, not by their intentions. It is not enough to have the desire to fight terrorism; there are international rules for fighting terrorism, and of course, here, I am presuming that there are good intentions. However, we do not believe that there are good intentions. The Syrian government is fighting ISIS, why wasn’t it supported? And why does the French government fight ISIS and yet support al-Nusra, when in fact they are both terrorist organisations?!
Question 3: Perhaps you are referring to the period when Hollande was President of the Republic. Actually, the French Foreign Minister, Fabius, himself said at a certain point that you do not deserve to remain alive. What is the position now with Emmanuel Macron? Have you felt a change in the French position?
President Assad: In form yes, in substance no. When there is occupation, it is one form of terrorism.; we need to acknowledge this fact. We need to talk about change in substance not in form. We are not interested in statements, but with action on the ground.
Question 4: How do you want change to happen on the ground?
President Assad: Simply, by going back to international law. We do not ask the French government for anything; we do not ask for political, economic, or security assistance. We don’t need them, and we are capable of managing our own affairs in Syria. But we want them to return to the international order, which doesn’t exist at the moment.
Today, there is international chaos. We don’t want them to support the President, this is of no concern to me; it doesn’t concern us if they say he is good or bad, this is also a Syrian matter. But what we do demand is that they stop supporting everything that could cause more bloodshed, killing, and suffering in Syria.
Question 5: France faces a real problem related to the Jihadists in Syria. Do you have Jihadists in your prisons?
President Assad: Regardless of nationalities, this is a matter for the competent authorities who have the statistics. But in any case, if there are Jihadists, they are subject to Syrian laws.
Intervention: But you should know if there are French nationals in your prisons?
President Assad: I don’t have any statistics. For us, terrorists are terrorists, whether they were French or Syrian.
Question 6: If you signed an agreement with the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” and the army entered that region and restored all this land, you’ll find that there are prisons, and in these prisons, there are 400 French Jihadists. What are you going to do with them?
President Assad: Every terrorist in the areas controlled by the Syrian state will be subject to Syrian law, and Syrian law is clear concerning terrorism. We have courts specialized in terrorism and they will be prosecuted.
Intervention: So, you don’t intend to repatriate them to Europe as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done, for instance?
President Assad: Erdogan is trying to blackmail Europe. A self-respecting man doesn’t talk like this. There are institutions and there are laws. Extraditing terrorists or any convicted person to another state is subject to bilateral agreements between countries; but to release people from prison knowing that they are terrorists and sending them to other countries to kill civilians – this is an immoral act.
Question 7: Going back to the ongoing conflict, eight years of war, the country devastated, whole cities destroyed, half the population are displaced or refugees, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Do you acknowledge that you wouldn’t have won this conflict or this war without Russian or Iranian support?
President Assad: War is tough and not easy, and we are not a superpower. We have been fighting against the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. Logically, there is no doubt that the support of our friends has reduced losses and helped us regain our territories.
If we are to ask, whether Syria would have, without this support, gone towards partition or full defeat? This is a hypothetical question now, because sometimes it is difficult to predict the result of a tennis match involving two players, let alone a war with tens of players and hundreds of thousands of fighters!
Question 8: Have you thought, for a single moment during this war, of leaving, going into exile, for instance?
President Assad: In fact I haven’t, for a simple reason: the option neither existed nor was it considered, it was only suggested by Western officials. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t concern me. I would not consider this option unless it was suggested by the Syrian people, and when I say the Syrian people, I mean the majority. I do not mean a terrorist minority, nor a minority hatched up by foreign intelligence services, nor a minority of those who demonstrated because they were paid to do so by Qatar. This option was never suggested by the majority and that’s why I remained.
Question 9: But militarily, al-Nusra Front reached places only a few kilometers from your residence in 2013, to al-Abbasiyeen neighborhood, al-Abbasiyeen Square.
President Assad: That’s true. Damascus remained almost besieged for years, sometimes completely, sometimes partially; shells were falling on us on a daily basis. This in itself was a greater motive for me to remain and defend my country, not to flee. I am doing my constitutional duty in defending the people against terrorism.
Question 10: Now, let’s talk about reconstruction. It is said that reconstruction will cost 300 or 400 billion Dollars. Do you have a plan to get the people out of this conundrum, despite the embargo and the sanctions imposed on you which actually harm the people and increase their suffering?
President Assad: This is absolutely true. Nevertheless, some of our industries have expanded, not the other way around. The pharmaceutical sector, for instance, has expanded. As to rebuilding what has been destroyed, you can visit Aleppo, which had suffered large-scale destruction at the hands of terrorists, and year-on-year, you can see a difference and that the state is rebuilding the city together with its population.
Intervention: But the Syrian Pound is in very bad shape, at an all-time low, and you need to find foreign investment. Does China, for instance, and other countries want to invest?
President Assad: Most recently, in the past six months, some companies have started to come to invest in Syria. Of course, foreign investment remains slow in these circumstances, but there are ways to circumvent the sanctions, and we have started to engage with these companies, and they will come soon to invest. But this doesn’t mean that the investment and reconstruction process is going to be quick, I am realistic about this.
Intervention: What are your estimates, how many years?
President Assad: This depends on how many years the embargo will continue, and the methods it will use. It also depends on Syrians returning from other countries, which they are starting to do so gradually. It’s difficult to give an answer to this question, but of course, it is a process that will be on-going for years.
Question 11: How many Syrians have returned to Syria?
President Assad: Over a million Syrians in less than a year, and the process is accelerating, particularly after Damascus and the southern region and its environs were liberated. Of course, the return of Syrians is also related to rebuilding the infrastructure and the availability of other services, like electricity, schools, and hospitals; regrettably, these three sectors have been the worst-affected by the embargo. Furthermore, there is Western pressure for refugees not to return to Syria, for them, this is a humanitarian card which can be used to achieve political objectives.
Question 12: A large number of immigrants left the country because they opposed you, and because they suffered from the atrocities of the army. How can you invite them back? How do you encourage them to come back? Would they be covered by a general amnesty, for instance?
President Assad: First, most of them are supporters of the state and not the opposite. The evidence of this was the presidential elections which they took part in 2014 and voted for the President. The largest number immigrated because of the war itself and its economic consequences, so there is no problem with their return; these people can return normally and without an amnesty. Others are dissidents who have not committed any crimes and there is no warrant for them, the fact that they oppose me is not an issue, since we have dissidents within Syria and we are constantly engaging with them.
With regards to the amnesty, we have granted amnesties more than once, most recently a few months ago, because some people fear returning without an amnesty and believe that they will be arrested; although only those who carried weapons are arrested, and even those have been pardoned.
Question 13: Last year, when al-Ghouta returned to government control, I went there and met some young rebels who carried weapons. The Syrian officers were asking them to hand in their weapons and that they will not be harmed. Their response was: you want us to give up our weapons because you want us to join the army, and we don’t want to. They left to Idleb. What’s your take on that?
President Assad: In actual fact, some of those who went to Idleb left their families with us (government-controlled areas) and we are taking care of them; if they were afraid, they would not leave their families. This is the first point, the second, is that there are some militants who went to Idleb but later returned to our side. They asked and we allowed them to return. They received an amnesty, because the majority of them were told that the army will kill you. This happened of course when they were isolated from the state for seven years, but when the army went into al-Ghouta, normalcy was restored, and people now live a normal life. We must realise that some of them were fighting not because they were extremists, but they had no other choice: either to fight with the terrorists or to be killed. They are returning to us gradually after the felt reassured.
Question 14: Today, there are numerous demonstrations in Iran, and the same in Lebanon and Iraq. And all those demonstrators are asking for dignity and for wealth not to be concentrated in the hands of the few in their country. Wasn’t that the case of the demonstrators who went out at the beginning of the Syrian crisis?
President Assad: If we want to talk about the banners that were being pushed – like dignity, freedom, and others, they can be beautiful masks but what lies behind them is ugly. Let me give you some examples: Bush killed a million and a half Iraqis under the pretext of democracy; Sarkozy contributed to killing hundreds of thousands of Libyans under the pretext of freedom for the Libyan people; and today, France, Britain, and America are violating international law under the pretext of supporting the Kurds, who are a part of the Syrian population, not an independent group. In Syria in 2011, these very same banners – dignity and freedom – were used to kill policemen and civilians, and sabotage public property. Therefore, we should be more concerned with the facts on the ground and what’s actually happening than with headlines.
Intervention: But in the beginning, there was a popular uprising, and real demands. There was no existence of Al Qaeda. Why did you use violence at the beginning?
President Assad: Let’s talk numbers: the largest number of demonstrators in Syria was 170,000. For arguments sake, let’s assume this number is inaccurate and so let’s multiply it several times over to reach a million demonstrators; the Syrian population is over 23 million, so these figures are not representative of anything. So, in terms of size it is not a popular uprising. Second, a popular uprising does not occur when people are paid by Qatar to demonstrate. Third, I wouldn’t have been able to remain, with the government, in power for nine years in the face of a popular uprising. No one can withstand a popular uprising, and an example here is the Shah of Iran – despite all attempts and Western support, they could not keep him in power. So, calling it a popular uprising is wrong or at least unrealistic.
Question 15: At the beginning of the war in 2011, you released prisoners from Sednaya. You are accused of doing that in order to inject Jihadist poison in the ranks of the opposition. How do you respond?
President Assad: Every few years, we grant an amnesty to prisoners in Syria. This was a general policy before the war. When an amnesty is issued, there are some categories which are excluded like espionage, drug trafficking and others. However, in the law we did not have a category called extremists and so the amnesty includes everyone.
In 2011 specifically, there were convicts who were released because they had served their sentences and not because of an amnesty. What do we gain if we release extremists or terrorists in order to kill officers of the Syrian Army and civilians?! The Western narrative said that we did so in order to demonize the peaceful demonstrations; but in fact, they demonized themselves because in the early weeks, they posted videos – which can be found on the internet – where they killed policemen, attacked and slaughtered civilians. This is actually what happened concerning the release of prisoners.
Question 16: I talked a short while ago about Sednaya, but you have other prisons and detention centers. A colleague of mine named Manon Loizeau who made documentaries about rape cases in your prisons. What do you say to that?
President Assad: There is a difference between policy being implemented and individual action. Harassment or rape are not prevalent in Syrian society; but if there are such cases, they are punished by law. These are individual cases.
We condemn any such policy anywhere in the world because it is immoral; it also undermines stability in Syria. You cannot talk about stability and a peaceful relationship among the population if there was killing, torture, or any other kind of abuse.
Intervention: Those documentaries were filmed with Syrian witnesses, and these incidents happened to them. They were not talking about things happening in their society because they were ashamed of them. But they were witnesses who suffered from these practices?
President Assad: No. You are talking about a story. A story is one thing and documented proof is another. Everything that was presented was unsubstantiated, the photos were not verified. Who are those witnesses? They were hidden and not named. In most of these cases, Qatar financed these reports, and adopting them would need a professional investigation. If we were to put morality aside, logically, we do not have an interest in such acts.
This is against our interests, so why should we do it?! What do we achieve through torture?! What is the result – revenge?! If you go to the areas which were under the control of the opposition and then were retaken by the state, you will see the opposite. We are not schizophrenic: tolerant in one place and torturing people in another. These are mere political allegations.
Intervention: Once again, I stress, i.e. there is an emphasis on this point, but these witnesses were not funded by Qatar. They were witnesses who were met in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. And they suffered. And the person who documented these testimonies is a very trusted journalist.
President Assad: There is no such thing as trust in these cases. There are mechanisms and there are verified facts, there is no room for stories. Who verified the witnesses’ stories? Who verified that those witnesses had actually suffered to start with? I can discuss this story with you when I have the facts in front of me, but I can’t discuss rumors or stories. When facts exist, those who commit any crime are prosecuted by Syrian law, this is the norm.
Question 17: Donald Trump mentioned Syria when he extended thanks upon the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Did you give the Americans information, and did you know the whereabouts of al-Baghdadi?
President Assad: I always laugh when this question is raised, because the more important question which should be asked is: was al-Baghdadi really killed or not? And did this “fantastic play” staged by the Americans take place in reality?
Intervention: But ISIS acknowledged that!!
President Assad: Yes, of course. But ISIS was created by America; ISIS is part of the play and they taught al-Baghdadi how to act when he was in American prisons in Iraq. That’s why I’m saying did this big play actually take place? We don’t know. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t killed, but if he was, it wasn’t because he was a terrorist. They were able to strike ISIS when it was taking oil from Syria to Iraq, but they didn’t; and when ISIS attacked the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor, the Americans bombed the Syrian Army instead of ISIS. So, no, we did not cooperate with the Americans over anything. You cannot cooperate in the fight against terrorism with those who are supporting terrorism.
Intervention: So, why did Trump thank you?
President Assad: It’s one of Trump’s cute jokes. It’s a joke.
Question 18: In our meeting in 2013, you assured me that the Syrian Army never used chemical weapons in al-Ghouta. But after that came the case of Khan Sheikhoun, and then Douma. Why is the evidence mounting up suggesting that the Syrian Army used chemical weapons?
President Assad: To date, there isn’t a single shred of evidence; the use of these weapons would have caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people and this did not happen.
As to this build-up: firstly, it was because the Syrian Army was advancing in the fight against terrorism and they were looking for a pretext to strike at it, and that’s what happened. This narrative was used in two situations: either because we had made a significant advance, and it was an attempt to threaten us in the hope we’d stop, or because we were preparing for a large operation, and so it was an attempt to threaten us before the start of the operation.
Second: we were advancing and making good progress, so why would we need chemical weapons? That is the question. More importantly, every place we enter, there are civilians whose lives return to normal. How could they remain there while we were using chemical weapons?! In fact, the lies in Western media and in Western politics have no limits on this subject.
Journalist : Thank you.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.