Bashar al-Assad: In his own words

In part one of a two part interview, the Syrian president talks to Cumhuriyet about the recent downing of a Turkish jet.

resident Bashar al-Assad during an interview with a Turkish newspaper in Damascus.
Assad has told a Turkish newspaper he wished his forces had not shot down a Turkish jet last month [Reuters]

Bashar al-Assad, the embattled Syrian president, has given a rare interview to Turkish journalist Utkur Cakirozer from the Istanbul-based Cumhuriyet newspaper. The interview comes weeks after Syria downed a Turkish jet that it says was in Syrian airspace, an incident that has heightened tensions between the two neighbours.

Since the protests against Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, Turkey has cut off all diplomatic and trade relations with Syria.

Utkur Cakirozer: Did you or your administration give the order to shoot down the Turkish jet?  How was it hit?

Bashar al-Assad: Here we have to ask logical questions. There are two options: either, as they [Turkish authorities] claim, we knowingly shot it down. Or, we shot it out of the Syrian airspace by mistake.

If we had hit it by mistake outside of Syrian airspace … we would have said so. We would have apologised officially to Turkey. The Turkish people responded to this with understanding.

However, if it was the case that we hit it intentionally, then we need to ask this question: what kind of benefit would Syria have from downing a Turkish plane?

If we perceive Turkey and its Turkish plane as an enemy, we would have said so clearly. It came and we shot it down, but we don’t see it as an enemy. I have never from anybody else received such friendship as I have from the Turkish people over the past ten years. Why now would I take a step that would earn their animosity?

And the second option: have we brought down this plane as an action against the Turkish army? This doesn’t make sense either, because the Turkish army throughout this crisis [in Syria] has done nothing against us.

The plane was using an [air] corridor that had been used by Israeli planes three times in the past. Since we weren’t seeing it on our radars and since no information was given to us, soldiers downed it. We learned after it was shot down that it belonged to Turkey. One hundred per cent, I say I wish we had not shot it down.

UC: Are you planning to apologise to the families of the pilots and the Turkish people?

BA: These two pilots were inside a military plane. If there was a relation between the two military institutions maybe this could have been addressed directly. However, any relationship between our armies has been banned by Turkey.

UC: Was it been banned during, or because of, this incident?

BA: No, some time ago.

In Turkey, since the head of the army general staff changed, the Turkish government has made the Turkish army cut all forms of relations with us. But these kinds of incidents can occur between neighbouring countries all the time and this is why there has to be a dialogue between armed forces.

“In recent months, we do not even have a teleohone number for a Turkish commander to call in the event of an emergency.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

If the Turkish government had not cut relations between the two militaries, we would have taken this matter to the military authorities and resolved it before it became this big. However, in recent months, we do not even have a telephone number for a Turkish commander to call in the event of an emergency.

Under extraordinary situations, when we need to talk, we will not be able to reach anyone. In this incident we said: let’s try to reach the military attaché of Turkey. But he said to us: “Talk to the foreign ministry.” That was his response, following the orders he had received.

To recap, let me remind you also of something: if the Turkish side from the beginning had accepted our offer of calling them to form a committee, maybe these problems wouldn’t have occurred. But it is very interesting when we said to them: “Come to Latakia,” the location where the plane was downed, and let’s gets together. The Turkish government insisted that we should meet in Ankara – and then couldn’t meet us at all. If a committee had come together, maybe the [plane] incident wouldn’t have become this big.

UC: What did you feel when you heard the plane had been shot down?

“If this was an Israeli plane, then of course I would have been happy.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

BA: Turkish people are a brotherly society to us. Something that would upset them would never make me happy, and never did.

If this was an Israeli plane, then of course I would have been happy.

UC: Do you say: ‘I wish it hadn’t happened?’

BA: Definitely. I would never wish this for any plane [to be anything] other than an enemy plane. Especially for a Turkish plane, I say 100 per cent: “I wish it hadn’t happened.”

In the current climate, the appearance of such a plane is of course perceived as an enemy plane. Anyone who understands even a tiny bit about military affairs knows this. Any country at war anywhere around the world would act the same way. This is in no way, absolutely not, a political decision.

Unfortunately by using this [incident], the Erdogan government is taking a very narrow approach. For 15 months they couldn’t get the support of the Turkish people for their Syria policies. And now by using this opportunity, they are trying to convert the animosity between governments into the public domain. This is dangerous.

UC: On that plane there were two successful pilots, one of them a candidate to become an astronaut. As you are saying you didn’t down the plane knowing [it was Turkish], do you have a message for the families?

BA: Erdogan’s policies do not bring anything other than tears, blood and destruction to the Syrian people. But we still continue to hope for the best for the Turkish people. The undoubted truth is that the Turkish people are our brothers. Thus, one citizen’s death means the death of my brother. To their families, most sincerely and with the warmest feelings, I send my condolences.

One of the fathers of the pilots said: “My son died, but I do not want war.”  And I was very moved by his words. I share his feelings and with respect I bow to his honourable approach.

UC: There is serious tension between the two countries. Could this turn into a [violent] conflict or a war?

BA: In this region we are experiencing times where the whole map is changing. This is like 100 years ago and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. And we know where that left Turkish-Arab relations. When [former Turkish President] Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Syria, we tried to fix the fallout from those events of 100 years ago.

In other words, we learned a lot from past disagreements. We learned necessary lessons. Do we now want to go back to this period, where both of us lose?

Since the incidents started in Syria 15 months ago, we tried to do things in many areas.

The first one is to resolve the domestic problems and to fight terrorists.

The second: We were aiming to protect or retain the improved relations with Turkey. They had improved and had really reached their highest point. Unfortunately, since then, every step the Turkish government has taken has had the effect of destroying this structure. They have succeeded in destroying everything we achieved.

“We will not allow this to turn into a conflict between two countries, where both of them would be damaged by it, because this would be harmful both to Syria and to Turkey.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

However, in my opinion, the foundation of this relationship lies between the two peoples.

When it comes to your question, in the light of these principles we will not allow this to turn into a conflict between two countries, where both of them would be damaged by it, because this would be harmful both to Syria and to Turkey. We believe that these tendencies are only within the Turkish government and we believe that the Turkish people would never want war.

UC: Turkey has changed its military engagement rules. It now sees your country as an enemy. The missiles are pointing towards Syria. What are you going to do?

BA: We had two very bad periods in our relations with Turkey. The first one was in the middle of the 1950s in the period of the Baghdad Pact, and once again Turkey made a military buildup on the border and laid landmines.

The second one was in the period of the crisis [involving the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party Abdullah Ocalan in 1999]. In both cases, we didn’t see Turkey as an enemy. We neither conducted a military buildup nor responded. And now whatever the Erdogan government does, we have not built up our military defences on the border and we will not do so.

Turkish people are our friends … they will understand us. It is not important whether the Turkish government becomes an enemy of Syria. But if the Turkish people start feeling animosity towards us, then we do have a problem.

UC: Under the news rules of engagement, Turkey will hit your military if it approaches Turkey. What will your response be if this happens?

BA: No country can open fire on another country’s military force within that country, if its own border hasn’t been breached.

UC: But if it did?

BA: An attack on us, on our soil will be perceived as an attack on Syria. When something like that happens we will assess it, but I hope will not come to such a point.

UC: Did you not pick up the Turkish plane on your radar?

BA: The fact is, this plane was downed with a very small anti-aircraft battery. These systems never shoot a target that is further away than 2.5km.

Normally, they cannot bring down a plane. Only in one situation: If it approaches very, very low. This plane was flying very, very low and as it approached the beach they shot it down.

“There is a fact everybody knows: we are in a war situation. Consequently, any planes whose identity we do not know is an enemy plane.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

In peacetime, if a plane comes from a friendly country there is no need to shoot it down. Especially if it is coming from Turkey, there is no logic in doing so. However, there is a fact everybody knows: we are in a war situation. Consequently, any planes whose identity we do not know is an enemy plane. In this situation there was no central decision. Because the plane was flying low, neither the regional nor the central radars could see it.

The moment we got the news that a plane had been downed, Turkey said it was missing a plane. After Turkey made this statement that its plane was missing, we said it is a Turkish plane. No Turkish official called us. We called them.

Under the decision of the Turkish government our relations with the Turkish armed forces have been severed and this is why we called the Turkish foreign ministry. Hours later, they called us back in response. They told us they had sent search and rescue ships. I want to say this again: when we shot down the plane we did not have the slightest idea about its identity.

Here there is an important point that is not well known. And that is that the Turkish plane came from the route where three times previously Israeli planes tried to infiltrate our airspace. That is why planes that come through that route are perceived by Syrian soldiers as Israeli planes. It was viewed as an enemy plane, the reaction to it was rapid, and we opened fire.

UC: Why did you fire on the plane without warning?

BA: If we had seen it on our central radar it would have been warned. However, the soldiers sitting on this anti-aircraft battery don’t have radar. As a rule, if there are no other orders to the contrary, they would shoot down any plane they see. Because the time period between seeing it and hitting it is very short – only three to five seconds – and the authority rests with the soldier there.

UC: It was an unarmed plane. Why did you hit it?

The fundamental truth that the Turkish side has to explain is what exactly was that plane doing there in that area? But we do not want to question this too much … we want to consider this matter as over and dealt with.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

BA: Under these circumstances, military rules are not bound by the type of the plane, structure, mission, or weapons it carries. The soldier sitting in the anti-aircraft battery cannot know what the plane carries, whether it has missiles, whether it’s on a reconnaissance mission.

There is only one thing he will know: that the plane has entered Syrian airspace. He would have reacted, seeing this. If we had a relationship between military institutions, the Turkish side would have informed us about the plane and we would have acted accordingly.

The fundamental truth that the Turkish side has to explain is what exactly was that plane doing there in that area? But we do not want to question this too much … we want to consider this matter as over and dealt with.

UC: How do you not pick up an entry into your airspace on your radar?

BA: When it was high and out of our airspace, they might have seen it. But after it entered ours, it was not visible. The distance we are talking about here is 20km. Such a distance [is covered by] a plane in one or two minutes. After that, it was not visible because it was flying very low.

Anyway, in 2007 when Israel came and hit that building, it used the same route to exit and then our radar didn’t see those planes.

As a last point, in that area, Syria does not have missile systems that could reach outside its own airspace. Thus, what the Turkish side says about this incident does not reflect the truth.

UC: Turkey says it has obtained radio conversations and radar signals between Syrians on this matter and there are other countries … they are seeking information from other countries …

BA: Turkey called other countries in the region to give their radar and radio information. OK, right. Everybody explained the information they have in their hands. But there is something that no one can explain. Those who persistently blame us should answer this: what kind of benefit would we have by downing a Turkish plane?

We still believe in good intentions, we do not want to believe this plane was sent into our airspace intentionally and had some ulterior motive. We want to think that the plane entered it by mistake, not because it was carrying out reconnaissance. But Syria sees this matter as a transient issue, and we think that not too much should be made of it.

UC: In the [June 30] Geneva meeting under Kofi Annan, the ruling was that there should be a transitional government in Syria. How do you assess the consensus there?

BA: I have not spoken to Annan or to the Russian side yet. There were very clear statements in speeches delivered by the Russian foreign minister, [Sergei] Lavrov, and Annan.

The first one was that it was the Syrian people that would decide on everything. And the second is that all types of violence have to stop. They want the armed gangs to disarm. Bloody hands are involved in this. Annan says that some powers outside are also responsible. But this is what we claim as well.

Words and decisions taken outside our country don’t concern us. What we look at is what our own people say.

UC: Are there any sentences in the final agreement from the Geneva meeting that bother you?

BA: Under the [Geneva] framework, Syrian sovereignty is protected. We can talk about everything. We wouldn’t let anyone intervene in our sovereignty. We wouldn’t expect any intervention into our domestic matters. It’s been pleasing to me that it has been said that the Syrian people will decide. This was always my position.

UC: You are pleased with the statement by Lavrov, however, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton says: ‘Assad must go.’ Which one do you listen to more?

“In general, I don’t take any statement by the US administration seriously, because the US from the very beginning has seen us as the enemy … They are on the side of terrorists.

– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria

BA: In general, I don’t take any statement by the US administration seriously, because the US from the very beginning has seen us as the enemy. Their statements and actions are obvious. They are on the side of terrorists.

UC: Within the Geneva Agreement, is there any article indicating that you must go?

BA: The only thing that interests me in that document is one sentence and that is that Syrian people will decide on Syria’s future. As that sentence is there, that is enough for us. Do you want foreign intervention, or do you want to show respect for the Syrian people’s sovereign rights?

The documents don’t mention outside intervention. There is an emphasis on respecting the decision of the Syrian people and that is enough for me.

UC: There is a debate about transitional government. Will it be ‘with Assad’ or ‘without Assad’? How do you weigh this debate?

BA: I am not interested in international regional statements. Things like “with Assad”, “without Assad”. We will not accept anything that is imposed on us from outside. We will determine everything based on our internal dynamics.

If I personally was thinking of my own seat, I would have met the American advisers and followed their orders. I would have chased petro-dollars. And I would have given up on my own principles and nationalist stance. More importantly, I would have allowed them to build an anti-missile system [in Syria].

UC: Under what terms would you leave your position? Can you say: ‘Let this process unfold, I’ll give up my position. It’s OK if I’m not there.’ Can you say that?

BA: Of course I can. If my staying or going would save my people or my country, why would I hang on? I wouldn’t even stay one day. And if the reverse was true, and the people don’t want me, then there are elections anyway. If the people want, they can dismiss me.

UC: Are you going to sit on that chair until you die?

BA: I never had an interest in holding onto the chair. My lifestyle is about being able to do things and be productive. Speaking personally, if people are uncomfortable in a room where I am, then I would leave the room. In my country, if millions of people don’t want me, of course I’d go. Why would I sit where I’m not wanted?

The interview was conducted in Arabic and published in Turkish by Cumhuriyet. Al Jazeera has translated from the Turkish version and publishes the interview with permission.

Source: Cumhuriyet