President Bashar al-Assad said that Syrian-Syrian dialogue in Geneva established the basic principles on which negotiations will be built, and that what was achieved in the first round is the beginning of setting a methodology for successful negotiations. Following is the full text of the first part of the interview, as appeared on SANA, the Syrian official news agency.
Question 1: A lot is being said about the Syrian refugees. The large majority of refugees in Europe present themselves as Syrians, even Pakistanis do so. According to German figures, 77% of them do not have identification documents. We want to understand how you assess the number of the refugees who were forced to leave the country and why they have fled the country, and the number of those displaced within Syria. We would like to get the figures right concerning this issue.
President Assad: Of course, there are no accurate figures about those who left Syria or were displaced inside Syria. There are approximate figures, because people move inside Syria without registering themselves as displaced people. They go to villages where they have relatives and live with friends’ families. Most of them come from areas where there are terrorists and move to areas controlled by the state, seeking safety. But I don’t believe that the problem is that of figures. The problem is that up till now, there is no serious action taken by many countries of the world to solve the problem of these people. They deal with the issue of emigration as if it only concerned the outside world. They want to receive them in some European countries, provide them with shelter and aid, and probably send some aid to those displaced inside Syria. This doesn’t solve the problem. The main problem is that of terrorism. That’s why we should fight terrorism on the international level, because terrorism is not related to Syria alone. It exists in Iraq, it is supported directly by Turkey, by the Saudi royal family, and some Western countries like France and Britain. Other countries behave like bystanders and onlookers. They don’t take any serious action. I believe that herein lies the problem, not in the figures themselves.
Question 2: I am sure that you are waiting for Syrians to return to their country. But this will happen after reconstruction. Do you have any estimates of the size of destruction and damage done to Syria during recent years?
President Assad: Economic damage and that related to the infrastructure is over 200 billion dollars. Economic damage can be repaired immediately after things settle down in Syria. But the infrastructure takes a long time. We have started the process of reconstruction even before the crisis has ended in order to alleviate, as much as possible, the impact of the economic damage and the damage to the infrastructure on the Syrian citizen, and at the same time to reduce emigration. Those who would like to come back might do so when they see that there is hope that things will get better. Emigration is not caused only by terrorism and the security situation. It is also caused by the Western sanctions imposed on Syria. Many people emigrated from safe areas which have no terrorism because of the living conditions. People are no longer able to get their needs. That’s why we, as a state, should take actions, albeit initial ones, in order to improve the economic and services conditions in Syria. That is what we are doing concerning reconstruction.
Question 3: Of course, Syria depends on the help of the international community. On whom will you depend in rebuilding your country, and how do you envisage the role of Russian companies and businesses?
President Assad: The reconstruction process is profitable in all cases to the companies which will take part in it, particularly if they could secure loans from the countries which will support them. Of course, we expect in this case that the process will depend on three main countries which supported Syria during this crisis: Russia, China, and Iran. But I believe that many of the countries which were against Syria, and I mean Western countries in the first place, will try to send their companies to be part of this process. But for us in Syria, there is no doubt that the main direction will be toward friendly countries. There is no doubt that if you ask any Syrian citizen about this, his answer will be politically and emotionally that we would welcome companies from these three countries, particularly Russia. And when we talk about the infrastructure, it includes maybe not only tens of areas and specialties, but hundreds. That’s why there will be a very large space for all Russian companies to take part in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Question 4: Mr. President, we move to the political part. How do you evaluate the results of the negotiations which ended last week in Geneva concerning Syria?
President Assad: So far we cannot say that something has been achieved in the Geneva talks, but we have started now with the main things, i.e. laying the basic principles on which negotiations will be built. Any negotiations made without principles will turn into chaotic negotiations which do not produce anything, allow every party to be intransigent, and allow other countries to interfere in an unobjective manner. We have started with a principles paper. Our main work was with Mr. de Mistura, not with the other party we are negotiating with, and we will continue discussions over this paper in the next round. I can say now that what was achieved in the first round is the beginning of setting a methodology for successful negotiations. If we continue with this methodology, the other rounds will be good or productive.
Question 5: I wanted to ask you about that. What are the positions from which Syria will start the next round of negotiations when what is called the political transition will be discussed? And then the issue of a transitional governing body will be raised. What is your take on the mechanism of forming such a body?
President Assad: First, concerning the definition of the transitional period, there’s no definition. We in Syria believe that the concept of political transition means moving from one constitution to another, and the constitution expresses the form of the required political system in the transitional period, so the transitional period should continue under the present constitution, and then move to the next constitution after it is voted on by the Syrian people. Until that time, what we can do, from our perspective in Syria, is that there will be a government. This transitional structure, or transitional form, is a government consisting of the whole spectrum of the Syrian political forces: opposition, independents, the present government, and others. The main objective of this government will be drafting the constitution, putting it to the vote of the Syrians, and then moving to the next constitution. There is nothing, neither in the Syrian constitution nor in any other constitution in the world, called a transitional body. This is illogical and unconstitutional. What are the authorities of this body? How shall it run the daily affairs of the population? Who oversees its performance? Now there is the People’s Assembly (Parliament) and a constitution which rules over the government and the state. That’s why the solution is forming a national unity government which prepares for a new constitution.
Question 6: Here, concerning this government, I wanted to ask you about the mechanism of forming it. Who will appoint it? Shall it be the Parliament elected on April 13th, or you personally? Or are you going to allow an international input in that? How will the government be formed?
President Assad: This is the objective of Geneva, a Syrian-Syrian dialogue in which we agree to the formation of this government. Of course, we haven’t reached a final conception yet, because the other Syrian parties haven’t agreed to the principle yet. There are those who agreed, but when we all agree to the principle, we will talk about how it will be implemented. It is logical to have independent forces, opposition forces, and forces loyal to the government represented. This is in principle. As to how this will be distributed technically, you know, there are ministries with portfolios, others without portfolios, ministers who will join the state without any experience in government work. How would they run the daily affairs of the population? There are many detailed questions which should be discussed among us in Geneva, but these issues are not complicated. I don’t think they are complicated. All of them are solvable. The People’s Assembly has no role in this process. It is a process conducted between us and the opposition outside Syria. The People’s Assembly oversees the work of the government, but does not appoint the government in Syria.
Question 7: Do you believe that the structure of the next Parliament will be multi-colored?
President Assad: This depends on the electorate in Syria. Will there be new colors in the Syrian society? In other words, it is not sufficient, like what happened in the parliamentary elections in 2000, to have new parties. You can form 100 parties; but that doesn’t mean that they will all be represented in the elections. What is the form acceptable to the Syrian citizen for him to vote? As you know, these things do not happen quickly. They need time. Every new party needs to prove its point of view and political program to the citizens, and in such difficult circumstances, maybe, people by nature do not want to try a lot of new things. Maybe when the security situation improves, we will see this in a better way. Citizens will have political concerns more than concerns related to living conditions. Today, people think first of all about their lives, about their security, and then about living conditions, their children’s education and about their health. Other concerns come later. That’s why, in the present conditions, I do not expect to see real and radical change.
Question 8: Despite all of that, how would your successes on the ground and the victories of government forces help in the political transition? There are those who believe that this will make your position in the Geneva talks tougher. Would that threaten the political process?
President Assad: This is a very important question, because there are those who accuse us and Russia of that, where Russia’s fight against terrorism is portrayed as supporting the Syrian President or government, and consequently is an obstacle in the face of the political process. That would have been true if we were not flexible from the very beginning, or if we had been really intransigent. But if you go back to the policy of the Syrian state for the past five years, you’ll find that we have responded to all initiatives without exception and from all directions, even when they were not genuine.
Our objective was that we do not want to leave any opportunity untried in order to solve the Syrian crisis. That’s why I can sum up the answer to this point by saying that the Russian military support, the support of Syria’s friends, and the Syrian military achievements will all lead to accelerating the political solution and not the opposite. We haven’t changed our positions, neither before the Russian support nor after it. We went to Geneva, and we are still flexible. But at the same time, these victories will have an impact on the forces and the states which obstruct the solution because these states, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, and Britain bet on a failure in the battlefield in order to impose their conditions in the political negotiations. So, these military actions and military progress will lead to accelerating the political solution and not to obstructing it.
Question 9: If we talk about the future, how do you envisage the existence of foreign military bases on Syrian territory in the future? According to what conditions will these bases remain? And does Syria need them?
President Assad: If we talk about the present period, the period of terrorism, yes, we certainly need them, because they are effective in fighting terrorism. Even if the situation in Syria became stable again, from a security perspective, fighting terrorism is not a quick or a transient phase. Terrorism has spread for decades in this region, and it needs a long period of time to fight. This is on the one hand, on the other, this is not related to fighting terrorism alone. It is related to the general international situation. Unfortunately, the West, during the Cold War, after it, and up till now has not changed its policy. It wants to dominate international decision-making. And unfortunately too, the United Nations has not been able to play a role in keeping peace in the world. So, until that time, until the United Nations reclaims its real role, military bases remain necessary for us, for you, for international balance in the world. This is a fact regardless of whether we agree or disagree with it, but for now it remains necessary.
Question 10: About which bases are you talking exactly now?
President Assad: I’m talking about Russia. There are no other states, because our relations with Russia are more than six decades old, and they are based on trust and clarity. Moreover, it is the case because Russia bases its policies on principles, and we base our policies on principles. That’s why when there are Russian military bases in Syria, they do not constitute an occupation. On the contrary, they strengthen our relations and our friendship, and they strengthen security and safety, and this is what we want.
Question 11: Do you envisage, or do you allow Syria to turn into a federal state? If yes, what would be the form of the Kurdish self-rule? How extended would it be?
President Assad: Geographically speaking, Syria is too small for a federal state. It is probably smaller than most of the republics in the Russian Federation. Socially speaking, a federation needs social constituencies which cannot live with each other. This does not exist in Syrian history. In principle, I do not believe that Syria is prepared for federalism. There are no natural factors which might lead to federalism. Ultimately, of course, we as a state say that we agree to whatever the Syrian people agree to. The question of federalism is linked to the constitution, and the constitution needs popular endorsement.
But there is a concept which needs to be corrected in relation to Kurdish federalism. Most Kurds want to live in a unified Syria, under a central system, not in a federal system, in the political sense. So, we shouldn’t confuse some of the Kurds who want a federal system, on the one hand, with all the Kurds on the other. There might be other very small constituencies, not only the Kurds, who seek federalism. But the idea of federalism is not a general proposition in Syria; and I don’t believe that if it was put to the vote, will be endorsed by the Syrian people.
Question 12: But now there is talk about the new constitution. Do you agree that the outline of the new constitution will be ready by August? This is the date set by John Kerry in his talks in the Kremlin; whereas Russia’s position hasn’t been announced yet. This is the position Kerry announced in Moscow.
President Assad: The draft constitution could be prepared in a matter of weeks. The experts are there, and there are propositions which might be collected. What takes time is the discussion. The question is not how long will drafting the constitution take, but what is the political process through which we come to discuss the constitution. We as a state can draft the constitution and put it to the vote. But when we talk about political forces, who are these political forces? We do not know. We put this question to de Mistura. He doesn’t know either. Even the Americans don’t know. The West, or some countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, want to reduce all the other side to the Riyadh opposition, which includes terrorists. So, there should be a single image for the opposition. This doesn’t exist. Then we negotiate with them over a constitution. Other than that, August sounds like a good and sufficient time.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.