Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has given a rare interview to Turkish journalist Utkur Cakirozer from the Istanbul-based Cumhuriyet newspaper.
Since the protests against Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, he has faced international condemnation and sanctions, including from the Arab League and NATO for his handling of mass protests and civil unrest in Syria.
Utkur Cakirozer: You are trying to make a differentiation between the Turkish government and the Turkish people. But the Turkish people think things are going wrong in Syria under your rule. Dozens of innocent people and children die in this country every day. How are you going to put an end to this painful sight?
Bashar al-Assad: Do you remember the Shah of Iran, Pahlavi? He was at the helm of the region’s most important country. He has a strong army and he was backed by the whole world. Could he stand against the people? No. If I were in the same situation.
“… without the people behind me I could not have withstood. I would have been toppled. How come I am still remaining in power?“
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
Syria has been experiencing the incidents you have mentioned for 15 months. Everyone was calculating that I would be toppled very soon. All calculations have gone wrong.
Everyone has understood that this is not an incident emanating from within Syria. It is a ploy supported from outside. Radical Islamists from many Arab countries infiltrated Syria and are executing these actions. These terrorists have advanced weapons that are brought in from across the borders.
There is also a lot of money coming from abroad. Maybe many people are not happy with my regime in my country. But they are taking ownership of their country when they see these terrorist acts supported from outside.
They are talking about revolution. You can never have a revolution with armed gangs. If a revolution is to be made, it would be made by the people. No matter how strong it may be, no power can defeat a real people’s revolution.
But at the moment we are not fighting against the people, we are fighting against terrorist groups. Because we need to protect ourselves and protect the people.
Wouldn’t you have defended yourself in a similar situation? Would you have allowed terrorist groups to do what they do? Why should we not fight against terrorists when Turkey is undertaking an armed struggle in Turkey’s southeast under the name of the fight against terrorism? Should we then go ahead and say “Turkey is killing its own people?”
Turkey is fighting against terrorists. The same thing is true for us, also. Therefore the criticism directed against us has a double standard. And that is not acceptable.
UC: Do you regret the fact that last year you crushed the first democratic protests by using arms?
BA: Well, at the end of the day we are human also. We can make mistakes.
You can always say, it would have been better if we did not do this, but did that, etc. And this is very normal. But the basic criteria here is the proportion of mistakes committed in the country to external factors. The role of external interference is more than our own mistakes and more harmful.
A three phase plan has been put in action in Syria. The first are peaceful demonstrations, and these are done in return for payments of money. They used to give $10 per demonstrator and they have increased it to $50.
They wanted to put people on streets like in Egypt and Tunisia. But they were not successful in this.
In the second phase, they wanted to arm some regions and make these regions liberated areas. Like the Benghazi model in Libya. And our army did not allow that. Now, they are in a new phase. Assassinations, bombing state buildings, massacres targeting civilians and abductions have started.
UC: In the last UN Human Rights Council report, it is stated that crimes against humanity are committed in Syria and that people are tortured. The report states that responsibility in these incidents largely belongs to units under your command.
“I ask those who say, Bashar is killing people: Why should I kill my people who are behind me? Everyone knows that since the day I came to power these people are supporting me.“
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
BA: You also know that a large part of these institutions are under American influence and under the influence of western governments. These reports are written as a result of the international balance of power. The aim is to increase the pressure. They can go ahead and say whatever they want. We are right and we will not yield.
UC: If, as you say, you are fighting against the rebels, how do you explain the death of so many innocent civilians and children?
BA: I ask those who say, Bashar is killing people: Why should I kill my people who are behind me? Everyone knows that since the day I came to power these people are supporting me.
Could I have taken strategic decisions if the people did not defend the line I have taken? For instance, could I have sat down with Israel for peace negotiations? Could I have supported Palestine and Lebanon? My power comes from the people. In that case, how logical would it be for me to kill my people and do away with the support behind me?
Look at the situation: The US is my enemy. The entire West is my enemy. Regional countries are my enemy. And in addition to that, the Syrian people are my enemy. And I am still standing! Is this logical? I am still standing, thanks to my people.
UC: (Pointing at the three paintings on the wall) Did your children paint these?
BA: Yes, those are the first pictures my children painted at school.
UC: Your children, particularly those older than 10 must be seeing on the internet what is happening in the country. What do you tell them about the images of dead children?
BA: Children are growing up with these political ideas and raise their awareness. They are shocked when they see those images. I tell them that terrorists, bad people have done those things. There is also a new problem experienced among the children. There are those among their classmates who are abducted in return for ransom money. This is yet another headache we have.
This is what we talk about in those all the time. Can you imagine in what kind of an environment we are raising our children?
UC: Is it not possible that these incidents may have been perpetrated by units under your command?
BA: Of course, mistakes are being made all the time. Crimes are committed.
If a part of a group commits a crime, is the State to be held responsible?
There is a difference here. No matter at what level they are, it is perfectly natural for administrators to make mistakes. Didn’t you have such mistakes in your own country? This happens everywhere in the world. Individual crime and institutional crime are different things. Crimes being assumed in the context of a state are a different thing.
“The great majority of the people think as I do on this issue. In the beginning, many Syrians could not perceive this properly but they can see clearly now that these people are terrorists.“
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
UC: If elections were to be held tomorrow, would the people elect you?
BA: I cannot answer this on behalf of my people. I did not have a public survey done either. Plus, I am not doing what I do just to be elected by the people. I do it because I believe in what I do. When I do things despite the people, things that are contrary to the people I have to say what is right.
You cannot lie to your people. I never think about whether I will remain as the head of state or not. I have to deal with the problem of how we can come out of this crisis.
UC: Well, how do you get out of it?
BA: There are two dimensions: External and internal factors. When you look at external factors there is first the issue of money and arms. Arms and military aid sent from outside must be stopped immediately.
Then there is of course logistical support. The support given to the terrorists firstly by the US and the international powers must come to an end. You know the situation of the countries in the region.
UC: Do you mean Turkey?
BA: Of course. The Turkish government has hostile policies against us; setting up camps along your border, bringing people from here to those camps.
Pulling people that have been sent inside there. These are the hostile policies of the government against us. The government is trying to use the existing crisis against us.
The second issue is the things to be done inside the country. The big game targeting Syria is beyond our expectations. The aim is to divide and fragment Syria or to instigate civil war. The fight against terrorism to stop that will continue absolutely. And we will overcome terrorism. There is no doubt about that.
The great majority of the people think as I do on this issue. In the beginning, many Syrians could not perceive this properly but they can see clearly now that these people are terrorists. Millions of people who were opposing me are now taking their stand next to their state.
Secondly, the political reform process will continue rapidly and in a healthy manner. The political parties’ law has been passed. There are 20 political parties. The media law has been passed. At the present new private media have started broadcasting.
Parliamentary elections, local authority elections have been held. The constitution has been renewed, which is very important. All these will enable us to come out of the crisis.