Question 1: Mr. President, thank you very much for availing us of this opportunity in order to know your perspective of what’s happening in Syria now, and how the situation would be in the future. I believe that it’s very important for our Russian audience to know what’s going on outside our country. Let’s start with the success you have achieved in Aleppo, which is really an important achievement and gives you significant power. But, what will happen after Aleppo? Are you going to move towards Idleb or al-Raqqa, or are you going to stop a little in order to strengthen your position, or reframe your conditions – based on your current strength – in order to reach an understanding with other powers, like the American alliance?
President Assad: All the things you mentioned go in parallel: we liberate a certain area of the terrorists, and then strengthen our positions in that area, taking precautions against any counterattack by the terrorists from any direction, particularly that they receive support from a number of countries. At the same time, and in parallel with military operations, we provide opportunities on a daily basis both for civilians to leave the terrorist-controlled areas and an exit to terrorists themselves if they want to leave the area with their light weapons or hand themselves over to the state and receive an amnesty in return. As to Aleppo, liberating the city is of course important, but before we talk about the other areas, we need to fortify the city from the outside, in the sense of cleaning the areas surrounding it of terrorists. So far, the areas in which the terrorists are ensconced are about a few square kilometers, but terrorists outside the city are still shelling it with rockets and mortars on a daily basis. Two days ago, a number of people fell martyrs and dozens were wounded in Aleppo. So, liberating Aleppo doesn’t end with liberating the city itself, for it needs to be secured on the outside. Afterwards, identifying which city comes next depends on which city contains the largest number of terrorists and which city provides other countries the opportunity to support them logistically. Currently, there are direct links between Aleppo and Idleb because of the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra inside and on the outskirts of Aleppo and in Idleb. But the final answer to this must be after the liberation of the city, first, and through discussions with the Russian leadership which takes part in these battles with us, and also with the Iranian leadership.
Question 2: But when this operation is over, you no doubt have future plans. Will you stop and start negotiations? Or will you move forward in order not to give terrorists any opportunity?
President Assad: There will be no pause, because this only happens in an area in which terrorists say that they are prepared to hand in their weapons or leave the area. Only then, military operations stop. Operations do not stop during negotiations, because we do not trust the terrorists, because they often say something and do the opposite. They used to ask for ceasefires only to strengthen their positions and obtain supplies consisting of weapons, ammunition, etc. That’s why we do not allow that. Only when we agree to something specific, we do that.
Question 3: You announced an amnesty which covers all the militants who stop fighting and hand in their weapons. Do you have any assurances that these militants will not arm themselves again or form other armed groups?
President Assad: No, we do not have any assurances. Based on our experience during the past three years, since we began these measures: reconciliations and granting amnesty to militants, we can say that the large majority of them went back to their normal lives. Even more, some of them have fought with the Syrian Army, for some have joined the army officially and some fought with it as civilians. Some of them actually fell martyrs. We cannot say that there is one category which includes all these people, but the largest majority have embraced the state. That’s why we are carrying on in this direction as long as the gains are much larger than the losses.
Question 4: Today, the situation in Palmyra is difficult. Reports say that you have been able to get 80% of the population out before the attack. But what about those who remained in the city? What is their fate? And how could terrorists have been sent from Mosul in Iraq and Deir Ezzor, such a huge and strong group like this, to Palmyra? How did that happen? Did they come on their own or were they helped?
President Assad: Let’s be clearer and more transparent on this point. We cannot link the Palmyra issue only with Mosul, because ISIS exists in Syria, in al-Raqqa in the north, where the American alliance is supposed to have been shelling ISIS for the past two years, which is not true. ISIS is there in Deir Ezzor where the American forces and warplanes, together with the alliance, have shelled Syrian forces instead of ISIS. Our real perception of the latest ISIS attack a few days ago on Palmyra in large numbers of fighters, with sophisticated weapons which ISIS did not have before, and in an area which exceeds tens of kilometers, means that ISIS received direct support from states. It’s not the case that ISIS just came from Mosul. How could they bring heavy artillery from Mosul? What have American warplanes in Mosul or al-Raqqa been doing? The fact is that the large majority of those came from al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, either through direct American support, or at best the Americans knew but turned a blind eye and left the implementation of the operation, in terms of funding and support, to Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. This is the reality of what’s happening in Palmyra today, and it is not only linked to Mosul.
Question 5: There are many oil and gas resources surrounding Palmyra, and it is very important for the state. Now, government forces no longer control it, and ISIS will derive again material support from these resources.
President Assad: Exactly. That’s true. Battles are still going on in that vital area. The importance of Palmyra might spring in the first instance from its symbolism as a historical and archeological city. But the areas surrounding it have other interests for the Syrian state and the Syrian people. That’s why the battles are ongoing and haven’t stopped up till now.
Question 6: Where will you get support to your forces which are fighting terrorists in Palmyra? From Aleppo or from Damascus, for instance? Can you strengthen your positions there and start the process of regaining Palmyra?
President Assad: In fact, the real objective of the Palmyra operation, and the timing of the attack on the city, is directly linked to the battle of Aleppo. Why didn’t ISIS attack Palmyra a month ago, for instance? They were able to do so, but the attack started when significant progress was being made in the city of Aleppo. That’s why this operation has two objectives: first, to undermine the importance of liberating the city of Aleppo because liberating it is very important for the Syrians who have experienced a great deal of joy and significant lift-up of their morale. You are here in Damascus and you will feel what I’m saying. Second, which might be more important objective for them, is to distract the Syrian Army and fragment its efforts in different directions so that the major force operating now in Aleppo would have to withdraw towards Palmyra. Today, there is a meeting on the level of the Syrian and Russian military leadership to discuss how to address this emergency situation. In the end, as we liberated Palmyra in the past, we will liberate it again. It was under ISIS control and the Syrian Army, with Russian support, liberated it. We will do that again. This is war: you win somewhere and lose somewhere else. But we should know that the main thrust now, and the priority, is the city of Aleppo.
Question 7: Last week, Barack Obama lifted the embargo on providing weapons to what they call “the moderate opposition.” How, do you think, this will change the balance of power on the ground?
President Assad: Of course the Americans are treacherous. Lifting the embargo did not necessarily happen when Obama announced it. Probably it was announced days after it actually happened, only to give it legitimacy. That’s why I would like to link the timing between the Obama announcement of lifting the embargo and the ISIS attack. Where did these weapons go? Either to Jabhat al-Nusra or to ISIS, which are one and the same thing, regardless of the labels. I do believe that this is also linked to the advance the Syrian Army is making in Aleppo, and the response was in Palmyra, and it might be in other places. But if you look at the way the Americans behave in such cases, when American plans fail, what do they always do all over the world? They create chaos. It doesn’t matter in which direction, and then manage the chaos in a manner which enables them to blackmail the different parties until they are able to achieve stability in a way that serves them. So, lifting the embargo at this particular time is part of this policy. There is another aspect. This administration is outgoing now, and they might be concerned about a real rapprochement between the United States and Russia under the next administration, the Trump administration. This outgoing administration tries to create the largest possible number of problems so that these problems impede the rapprochement between Russia and the United States. So, this announcement, which is a brief one, might have different and significant aspects and impacts.
Question 8: To follow up on this, after Trump was elected, you said that he might be a natural ally of Syria. What are the conditions which might be conducive to this?
President Assad: Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that. We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently. That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally and your natural ally. This is what you call for and we call for continuously.
Question 9: In the last few days, there has been talk in the American media about what they called “Syrian elite forces,” which will receive American support and will start to move towards Raqqa to fight ISIS, and that they consist of 45,000 fighters. Who are they? And how are you going to deal with them?
President Assad: During the past few years, the US has tried to promote the idea that there is something called “moderate opposition” or “moderate fighters.” They haven’t been able to market this lie because the facts on the ground proved the opposite, that all those they support are extremists, whether they belong to al-Nusra, ISIS, or other organizations with the same extremist and terrorist ideology. Now they are trying to leave ISIS in certain areas and then rely on these groups, part of which was originally in ISIS and al-Nusra, but shaved their beards and dressed differently and acquired a moderate name, and that they will liberate those areas of ISIS. So, it is a charade, ISIS under US control, who will in turn control the moderates. These forces will very simply enable US officials of washing their hands of any link with the extremists in Syria.
Question 10: Western analysts and experts talk about and draw several scenarios for Syria, like federalism and disintegration, since it will not return to its former condition. Do you have any conception for the future in this regard, for instance self-rule for the Kurds or federalism? Or should the war end first, and afterwards you think of these changes?
President Assad: No, we can’t think about this now, because the Syrian people discuss these issues on a daily basis. I can tell you that these propositions have been made for years now, not a few weeks ago. For us, the picture has become clear: most Syrians reject any weakening of the Syrian state, and most Syrians reject any undermining of the integrity of Syrian territory or the shape of the state or the political system in its present form. When I say the majority, I mean the vast majority of the Syrians.
Nevertheless, we as a state do not have our own opinion on this because this is linked to the constitution, and the constitution should be voted on by the Syrian people, and should be the outcome of dialogue among the Syrians. That’s why I say we discuss it now, but any proposition for amending the constitution cannot happen now during the war. This is impossible, because a referendum needs different circumstances. The priority now is given to terrorism. As to the Western plan, this is true but not new. They conspired against Russia before communism, and wanted it to lose territories since the days of the Tsars. They conspired against it during the Cold War, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now. This is the Western policy which seeks to divide countries: make them smaller if they are big, and make them even smaller if they are small. Then, they can control these countries and turn them into flunky satellites which do their bidding. So, this is the plan for Syria, whether they announce it or not. It is certainly there from the beginning, and it was put forward before the crisis.
Question 11: After the war, there will be of course a reconstruction phase and support for the economy of the country. There is talk now that the economic loss in Syria is about 180 billion Dollars. Do you think that Syria on its own, or even with Russian support, will be able to rebuild what was destroyed? And which are the countries which might help in rebuilding Syrian economy? And do you understand that some of those countries might ask you to make certain concessions in return?
President Assad: Reconstruction is of course a huge and very useful economy for any country in the post-war stage. For us in Syria, we have very large material capabilities in the private sector, both in Syria or in the countries of expatriation or among businessmen who emigrated during the crisis. Most of those will return. They have houses and properties and will return to rebuild their country, and consequently economic movement will start. There isn’t a great concern in this regard, but it needs time. Of course, when there is support from friendly countries, this will increase the speed of the development process which lost hundreds of billions as you said. Reconstruction is obviously useful for us, but also to other companies coming from abroad. And I tell you clearly and simply that the Syrian people will not accept any company coming from any state that took a hostile position towards Syria or towards the integrity of Syrian territory or a state that supported terrorists. This is very clear, and we need to be able to distinguish between the private sector in such states and the position of the states themselves. The priority in this case will be given to friendly countries which supported us directly like Russia, China, Iran, and others, or at least the countries which did not stand against Syria, even when they were neutral and took a moral position.
Question 12: According to different estimates, the number of Syrian refugees outside Syria is about six million. Has Syria lost these people for good, or will they return?
President Assad: No, what’s happening in fact is the exact opposite. You might be surprised to know that there are people who are relatively well-off and are capable of securing their interests outside the country, yet they returned during the past two years for reasons related to their psychological status or because of patriotic feelings or other interests. So, people have started to return albeit slowly now. I am sure that when the war is over, the large majority of those who emigrated from Syria will return. Most of them left the country not because they are against the state. They left either because they were threatened by the terrorists directly or because they could no longer secure their livelihood, and that’s why they emigrated in order to secure their daily livelihood. Most of those people are loyal to the state and to their homeland, and I am sure they will return. I’m not concerned about this
Question 13: Returning to the military aspect, how is the condition of your army today? What about the loss of manpower? How do you assess the condition of the army in light of the large number of fronts and military actions it is involved in now?
President Assad: When we talk about a little less than six years of military action, it is a war longer than the first and second World Wars. You can imagine how big and exhausting it can be. Any army in a superpower will be exhausted in such a war. The Syrian Army is not that of a superpower. We are a small state in all respects. Of course, the support of friendly countries helped this army carry out its tasks regardless of the large losses in equipment and manpower. And we have a large number of wounded soldiers who went out of the line of action because they are incapable now of carrying out such actions.
The army was of course affected in terms of manpower and equipment, but this is not everything on the battlefield. You have the morale and the determination. Despite all the losses, we are advancing in Aleppo, and Syrian soldiers are fighting more ferociously. This, then, is not linked to the losses but first of all to acquiring greater determination to achieve victory, determination to defend their homeland. This determination is growing today. This is the truth, and this is the strongest weapon we have now. Without this determination, I tell you that the Syrian Army is incapable of liberating part of a small city, let alone a city the size of Aleppo. This is the condition of the Syrian Army now. This determination, of course, is also linked to the support given to the army by the Syrian people, the Syrian society which stands behind the Syrian Arab Army. Without all the forms of this support, this army wouldn’t be able to carry on with the same tasks after a little less than six years.
Question 14: Some Western politicians say publicly and repeatedly that Russia should put pressure on President Assad in order to change his position regarding certain issues. Have such things happened? Has Moscow tried to impose its views on you?
President Assad: Had our Russian friends found that we are involved in this war for causes related to the President, the government, a group, or a special agenda, I tell you that they would have advised us and maybe put pressure on us. But they know, as we do, that the issue has to do with war against terrorism. Our Russian friends, who know the implications and dangers of the spread of terrorism, would not advise us to move in the direction favored by the West. On the other hand, we have dealt with Russian officials at different levels and in different sectors for about six years. Add to that a relation which dates back six decades. It has never happened in the history of this relationship up to this interview that the Russians tried to put pressure on us in relation to an issue they consider part of Syrian sovereignty. When they want to offer an opinion or an advice, they always say: in the end this is country and you identify the right decision and the decision that suits you. So, the nature of the Russian state does not favor pressure; and the policy we have adopted in Syria also goes in the right and mutually-agreed direction which achieves our common interest.
Question 15: If you may allow me a special question, Mr. President, today we are in the Presidential Palace, and we are five kilometers from Jobar, which is controlled by al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. Can you still move freely in the country? Or does the security factor force you to remain in Damascus most of the time? How do you arrange your work schedule in general?
President Assad: No, from the security perspective, I haven’t allowed these conditions to affect me during the past six years, except to a minimum degree. I still go to work as I used to in the same way and using the same measures. I haven’t changed anything at all. On the contrary, the war made it necessary for me to be on the frontlines sometimes to visit to soldiers a few hundred meters from the terrorists. This happened a lot during this war. So, the security factor is not essential for me in these circumstances. We are all Syrians, and we are all exposed to the same dangers. The terrorists used to fire rockets on the city of Damascus, and we continued to move in the same way, come to this place, and move in all directions. But the nature of my visits is focused today mainly on the war: visiting the army, the families of the wounded, meeting the families of the martyrs. I carry out these activities or any other activities related to the state and focused on reconstruction and improving the economic conditions, in addition to the military aspects. This is my main concern in these circumstances.
Journalist: Thank you very much, Mr. President, for this interview, and we hope that peace and stability will prevail throughout Syria soon, and that life will return to safety again.
President Assad: I would like to thank you and to express my pleasure for meeting you in Damascus, and to send my regards through you not only to the Russian leadership but to the whole of the Russian people; for all the support provided by Russia to Syria on the political level, through the Security Council, or on the international arena in general, or through the direct military support was all thanks to the Russian people who we consider a direct participant in this war against terrorism. Regardless of the extent of political, military, or material support, there is something which is much more precious which is blood. We will never forget that in addition to the Syrian-Russian families which have been created throughout the past sixty years, during this war there was also joint blood through the martyrs offered by Russia in defense of Syria and the Syrian people in the face of terrorism. That’s why I send my regards to every Russian citizen throughout the very large Russian arena.
Journalists: Thank you.