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In a two-part interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad presented his views on the situations in Iraq and in Lebanon and on Syria’s relations with Iran, Europe and the U.S. Assad expressed support for the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine, and intimated that its opponents are opposed to resolving the intra-Palestinian and intra-Lebanese conflicts and are serving foreign interests. He also expressed his confidence in the Arab public, which, he said, is leaning more and more towards the resistance, but admitted that there is disunity among the Arab countries and that the Arabs are growing weak in comparison to non-Arab forces in the region, i.e. Iran and Turkey. He added: “…It is periods of calm that are worrying, rather than periods of difficulty and pressure… because they engender lassitude among the administration and the people, and you fear the struggle that will come [once the period of calm is over]…”

The following are excerpts from the interview:[1]

Inter-Arab Relations

While Syria and Saudi Arabia have grown closer this year, the political rift between Syria and Egypt has deepened. Assad said that “inter-Arab relations are apparently more difficult [to maintain] than relations between Arabs and non-Arabs,” and admitted that this has serious repercussions in terms of the Arabs’ influence in the Middle East.

Referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Lebanon, he said: “It made me feel, as an Arab, that a [new] Middle East is emerging that is diametrically opposed to the one proposed by [former U.S. secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice. This is a Middle East in which Iran plays a major role and Turkey tries to match it, while the Arab [role] is weak, and is more or less confined to Syria’s role, which exists thanks to its relations with Iran. [And I wonder]: Will this Arab weakness be one of the characteristics of the new Middle East?”

These statements appear to indicate a shift in Assad’s perception of his status vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey: Whereas previously he regarded Syria as equal in status to its two allies, today he feels that Iran and Turkey used Syria to legitimize their involvement in Arab affairs – especially their involvement in Lebanon and Iraq – and are now marginalizing Syria.

Saudi Arabia

Assad characterized Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia as “good, stable and unique,” and praised his ties with King ‘Abdallah, which he described as “the mainstay of the relations [between the two countries].” He denied that there are intentions to sever the link between the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement and the issue of Lebanon due to disagreements between the two countries on this issue. He also denied any Syrian involvement in the Houthi insurgency on the Saudi-Yemeni border, and stressed that the Yemeni president has not requested his assistance in this matter, and that Syria is not serving as a base or way-station for elements hostile to Yemen.[2]

Egypt

As for Egypt, Assad said that there was a rift between the Syrian and Egyptian leaderships, pointing out that he had not met with any top Egyptian official for five years. He added that since the attempt at reconciliation during the 2009 Kuwait summit, there have been no efforts to mediate between the two countries, and laid the responsibility for this at Egypt’s door. He acknowledged that there were significant disagreements between the two countries, but said that such disagreements have existed in the past but did not lead to a rift, and that today the Egyptians refuse to even discuss the reason for the tensions. He stressed that he has no specific demands of Cairo, but emphasized that a renewal of relations would have to be officially initiated by the Egyptians, mentioning that he has expressed his willingness to visit Egypt, if invited, but that the Egyptians did not respond.[3] He added that the rift in political relations had no impact on the economic relations between the countries.

Iraq

Assad expressed concern over the situation in Iraq and the failure to form a government there. He said that the main issue was not who the president would eventually be, but the makeup of the government and its positions on Iraq’s unity, independence, sovereignty and Arabness, and on its relations with its neighbors. He added that Syria was not backing any particular side in Iraq and was willing to help in the establishment of the government.

As for the Kurdish question, he said he opposed any force in Iraq that was striving to partition the country. He admitted that he had been wrong to believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime could have withstood the American onslaught for longer than it had, and that the invasion would have met with stronger opposition.

Lebanon

The Syrian president gave conflicting signals about his relations with Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’d Al-Hariri and the desired nature of Syria-Lebanon relations. Following reports of a rift between himself and Al-Hariri, and a few days after he disparagingly referred to the March 14 leaders as “cardboard figures,”[4] he said that he had no personal conflict with Al-Hariri and that the doors of Damascus were open to him. He also expressed support for Al-Hariri’s remaining in office, and said that none of the Lebanese opposition leaders with whom he had met wanted to change the makeup of the government or to replace the prime minister.

However, he clarified that a condition for maintaining good relations with Syria was supporting the resistance and standing behind it: “The resistance is not up for discussion, on the local, regional, or international level… The road to [good relations with] Syria passes through [support for] the resistance. If some element or other opposes the resistance, how can I [possibly] meet with it?… The basis for my relations with any element is its stance on the resistance…”

Assad added that he had not encountered a willingness in Lebanon to resolve the present crisis, but admitted that to date, Syria and Saudi Arabia have also failed to reach an understanding on the desired resolution.

The International Tribunal in Lebanon

About the international tribunal investigating the Al-Hariri assassination, Assad said that this was an internal Lebanese affair, but warned that the release of indictments could destroy Lebanon, and called for decisive evidence to be presented for the perpetrators’ guilt, rather than mere assumptions.

The Palestinian Authority

Assad criticized the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, saying, “The [inter-Palestinian] reconciliation will be achieved only when all sides are committed to Palestinian interests rather than to external interests and influences. As long as the issue [of reconciliation], or even part of it, is under the control or influence of other countries, the sides will not reach a solution.” He stressed that a visit by Abbas to Syria is not on the agenda at the moment.

Al-Qaeda

Assad said that Syria is suffering from the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives on its soil, but that they find no support among the Syrian public. He added that there are occasional security breaches, and that the Syrian security apparatuses occasionally thwart attempts to carry out terror operations or to smuggle explosives into the country. He stressed, however, that this activity by Al-Qaeda is not aimed at the Syrian state, and that it originates in Iraq and Lebanon.

The Regional Arena

Iran

The Syrian president defended Iran’s involvement in Iraq and rejected the claims regarding its attempt to undermine Iraq’s Arab identity. He maintained that the problem in Iraq was not Iranian involvement but U.S. interference and the lack of Arab involvement. At the same time, he acknowledged that he had some disagreements with the Iranian regime, which, he said, was the reason for the frequent meetings between the two leaderships in the recent period. It should be recalled that in January, Assad said that the two countries were aligned in their position on all issues.[5] The current disagreements seem to be over the formation of the Iraqi government and the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement.

Regarding Iran’s involvement in Lebanon, Assad stressed that it differed from Syria’s involvement there. Iran, he explained, is concerned with the macro level in Lebanon, i.e. with big issues such as the resistance and the country’s internal stability – issues on which Damascus and Tehran are in complete agreement. Syria, on the other hand, is concerned with the micro level, and is familiar with the details of the Lebanese events.

The International Arena

The U.S.

Assad refrained from personally attacking U.S. President Barack Obama, but pointed to Obama’s inability to implement his policy, despite his desire to advance the peace process and repair relations with the Arab world. Assad added that Syria-U.S. relations had not improved because the U.S. administration, or parts of it, were opposed to Syria’s positions: “The source of the problem is that we do not say ‘yes’ to anyone, not even to the U.S., unless it coincides with our interests. Our position on Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and the resistance is clear, and it is anathema to most of the institutions in the U.S. [administration], if not to all of them…”

The Syrian president downplayed the importance of returning the U.S. ambassador to Syria, calling this a formal issue. He said that the absence of an ambassador, whose appointment has been blocked by Congress, hurts America’s interests but has no impact on those of Syria, which does have an ambassador in Washington.

Assad added that the anarchy in many parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, broke out in the wake of American intervention there.

Europe

Assad did not hide his disappointment with the European Union, which, he said, had neglected its role in the region, and was now paying the price in the form of a decline in economic relations with the Middle East countries and a weakening of its political influence. He stressed that the responsibility for the crisis is Europe’s.

Asia and Latin America

Assad is looking for an alternative to Europe as a political ally, a source of investment, and an influential friend in international organizations. To this end, he is striving to develop ties with India, China and Latin America, which he calls “rising political and economic powers.” He is also continuing his efforts to establish a regional alliance spanning five seas: the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Red Sea. Though in the past, Syrian officials – including Assad himself – emphasized the central role Syria would play in this alliance,[6] in this interview Assad admitted that “it is something of an exaggeration to speak of Syria as the center [of this alliance]. The center is the region [as a whole], and Syria is part of it.” He explained that the top priority is consolidating ties with Lebanon and Jordan.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Hayat (London), October 26, 27, 2010.

[2] Reports have it that in the course of talks between Syria and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis asked Assad for assistance in the war against the Houthis.

[3] At the March 2010 Arab Summit in Libya, Assad expressed a desire to visit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak upon the latter’s return from medical treatment in Germany. However, the visit did not take place, though Egyptian officials had declared that there was no objection to it.

[4] Al-Rai (Kuwait), October 23, 2010.

[5] IRNA (Iran), January 12, 2010.

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.583, “Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int’l Role – The Triumph of the ‘Course of Resistance,'” January 29, 2010

MEMRI

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