The Presidential Palace in Damascus overlooks the Syrian capital, but the most troubled parts of the war-ravaged country are out of sight.
The future of those lands, as well as the broader question of how to solve the ongoing political imbroglio and rebuild Syria, are on Bashar al-Assad’s mind as he speaks in his first interview to foreign media in over a year.
The president talks to RT's Afshin Rattansi about the origins of the conflict that engulfed his country and the role of Western governments in it, and gives his take on the recent and future developments in Syria and elsewhere.
On the interview embargo
Bashar al-Assad, who turned 54 in September, last gave an interview to a foreign news outlet in June 2018. He says he had stopped speaking to Western media completely because of their hunt for a “scoop”, but feels now that “public opinion in the world, and especially in the West, has been shifting during the past few years”.
“They know that their officials have told them so many lies about what’s going on in the region, in the Middle East, in Syria, in Yemen,” he says of the Western public. “They know there is a lie, but they don’t know the truth; so, I think, it’s time to talk about this truth.”
On how the war started
The Syrian conflict broke out in early 2011 with anti-government demonstrations, which coincided with violent Western-backed protests in other Arab-majority nations, known collectively as the Arab Spring. Foreign policy-makers and observers have blamed the Syria protests on various factors, or a combination of thereof, from corruption and mismanagement to a protracted drought that stressed the socio-economic conditions.
While those factors were largely internal, al-Assad believes the lever was pulled from the outside: “The problem started when the money of Qatar came to Syria, and we had contact with many of the labourers, and we told them, ‘Why do not you come to your workshop?’ and they said, ‘We take as much in one hour as we [used to] take in one week’.”
“It was very simple. They paid them 50 dollars at the very beginning, then later 100 dollars a week, which was enough for them to live without work, so it was much easier for them to join the demonstrations,” he claims, adding that the Qatari government then began arming the protesters.
The demonstrations were originally described as peaceful by Western media, but Bashar al-Assad says this was not the case from the very beginning because policemen were shot during the initial phase of unrest. In the spring of 2011, the government cracked down on the protest movement, which quickly escalated into an insurgency throughout that year and had erupted into a full-on civil war by the summer of 2012.
Western governments, which called for President al-Assad to step down throughout the conflict, responded with tough sanctions on Damascus, including oil bans, trade and financial restrictions, travel bans and arms embargoes.
On chemical attacks
As the fighting intensified, a series of alleged chemical attacks occurred in opposition-held areas in 2013. Damascus and Moscow both suggested that the March attack in Khan al-Assal was a false flag operation by the opposition-aligned militias, which blamed the government in turn.
When UN investigators arrived on the ground to investigate the incident, their visit coincided with an even larger-scale sarin attack in Ghouta on 21 August, which reportedly led to hundreds of casualties. The United States was quick to accuse the Syrian government and was on the brink of a military intervention, averted only when Damascus agreed to surrender all of its chemical weapons.
Bashar al-Assad points out that the timing of the Ghouta attack made no sense to him: “The funny thing about that date is that it is the same date when the first delegation, the international delegation that came to Syria to investigate the incident arrived in Damascus, which is only few kilometres from this place.”
“And logically, the Syrian army, if we suppose that it has chemical weapons, it wants to use it, it would not use it on that day, this is first. Second, they talked about two hundred civilians killed. If you use chemical weapons, you may kill tens of thousands in such area where people are living very close to each other. I mean, it’s a crowded area.”
He calls those incidents and the West’s assessment of them “a narrative that was the pretext to attack Syria.”
“They did not offer any tangible evidence to prove that there was such an attack, and there were many reports that have refuted that report or those allegations,” he maintains. “So, it was only allegation; never, never had the Syrian army used chemical weapons before we handed over all arsenals to the international committee.”
A similarly suspicious attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib in April 2017 led the United States, based on unconfirmed claims by the opposition, to bomb a Syrian airbase without a UN mandate.
A conflict between factions of Syrian rebels saw the rise of extremist Islamist groups in 2014; Al-Nusra Front, and offshoot of Al-Qaeda, and Daesh*, aka ISIS, managed to seize large swathes of the country and sparked massive concerns over the regional security.
The United States, along with a few partners, formed a coalition in Syria – without a mandate from anyone whatsoever – while al-Assad invited Russia to intervene on behalf of Damascus.
On the US’ role in terrorist insurgence
The president reiterates a widespread assumption that those terror groups emerged as a direct consequence of the CIA arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union.
He says of the American policy: “They invaded Afghanistan, they got nothing. They invaded Iraq, they got nothing, and they started to invade other countries but in different ways.
“The problem with the Unites States now is that they fight a survival war from their point of view because they are losing their hegemony.
“Al-Qaeda is a proxy against the Syrian government, against the Russian government and the Iranian government. That’s why they’ve been using this, but you have evidence. How did ISIS rise suddenly in 2014?! Out of nowhere!.. In Iraq and Syria at the same time, with American armaments?!.. How could they smuggle millions of barrels of oil to Turkey under the supervision of the American aircraft, how? Because the Americans wanted to use them against the Syrian army.”
“Don't forget that there is a war between the United States and the rest of the world. Now, we're talking about tectonic shifting and earthquakes.
“So, you have rising powers like Russia, China and India and other countries. The United States does not accept any partner in leading the world, even UK, France, even other big countries, I wouldn’t call them great powers because this is another meaning, they are not great anymore. They don’t accept partners. That's why they are fighting now. So, the war in Syria is a microcosm of World War 3, let’s say, but without armaments; through proxies.”
On the ‘looting’ of Syria’s oil
During the war, terrorists have captured large swathes of oil-rich territories in northeast Syria; they have since been ousted from there by US-backed Kurdish militias which apparently continue extracting and smuggling out Syria’s oil.
US President Donald Trump has made it clear in recent weeks that “securing” Syria’s oil (i.e. keeping it in the hands of Kurds and away from the Damascus government) is his major priority in Syria. Moscow has recently exposed Washington’s efforts to keep the oil fields under its military control, describing them as “banditry.”
“Since ISIS started smuggling Syrian oil and looting Syrian oil in 2014, they had two partners: Erdogan and his coterie, and the Americans, whether the CIA or others,” al-Assad notes. “So, what Trump did is just announce the truth; he is not talking about something new. Even when some of the Kurds started looting the Syrian oil, the Americans were their partners. So, it's about money, and it’s about the oil, and that's what Trump said recently.”
“The Americans always try to loot other countries in different ways regarding not only their oil or money, or financial resources. They loot their rights, their political rights, every other right. That’s their historical role at least after World War 2.”
On Turkey’s invasion
Fighting is still going on in some parts of the country, particularly in the rebel-held north-west province of Idlib and in the north-east, where Turkey recently launched an offensive against Kurdish fighters who it designates as terrorists.
It drove the Syrian Democratic Forces – a Kurdish-led alliance of militias that includes Arab groups – to seek protection from Damascus, whose forces have moved into the areas vacated by American troops and Kurds.
Al-Assad views the Turkish encroachment as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty but refuses to lay the blame on the Turks altogether.
“The Turkish people are our neighbours, and we have a common history, and we cannot make them the enemy,” he says. “The enemy is Erdogan and his policy and his coteries. So, being against those [terrorist] groups in Turkey and in Syria does not mean that we see eye to eye in another aspect, especially after he invaded Syria, publicly and formally.”
On the Kurdish deal
Al-Assad, now probably in a much stronger military position than ever in the past nine years, has ruled out a power-sharing agreement with Kurds. He says the deal with the SDF is intended for the Syrian government to restore “full sovereignty” over the previously Kurdish-held territories and pull the Kurds from the Turkey border in order to “remove the pretext for the Turks to invade Syria.”
He adds he has also invited Kurds to join the government forces; some heeded the call and some did not.
A major issue appears to be with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has formed the militarised People's Protection Units (YPG) and is a member of an umbrella of Kurdish political groups that also includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – an organisation responsible for a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and outlawed by Ankara as a terror group.
Al-Assad argues that the majority of Kurds have “a good relationship with the government, and the majority of Kurds supports the government, but this part which is called the PYD is the one which has been supported by the Americans publicly, their armament, their money, they smuggled oil together.”
He claims that the PYD’s policy in the last few years was “to invite the Americans to stay, to be angry when America wants to leave and to say: we do not want to join the Syrian Army recently.” He did not expand on the opportunities for a compromise with this group.
On attacks by Israel
Tel Aviv, which is at loggerheads with Damascus over the Golan Heights, has on many occasions bombed targets in Syria throughout the war that it believes are signs of Iran’s military presence in the country.
Asked if Israel provides a direct support to terrorists, al-Assad says: “Every time the Syrian army advanced against those Al-Nusra terrorists in the south, Israel used to bombard our troops, and whenever we advance somewhere else in Syria, their airplanes started committing air strikes against our army.”
In his opinion, this indicates that there was a “correlation” between the operations of Israel’s army and Syria-based terrorists.
On Iranian tanker arrest
Al-Assad took a back seat over the summer when headlines from the Middle East were mostly dominated by Iran’s stand-off with the US and the UK.
Syria was indirectly implicated in a spat between Tehran and London over a tanker seized by the Royal Marines off Gibraltar on suspicion of shipping Iranian oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
The president strikes a tone similar to that of his allies in Iran, calling Britain’s actions an act of “piracy.” He suggested that the UK “wanted to affect the people in Syria” in “the last-ditch attempt” to turn them against his government.
On the rise and fall of al-Baghdadi
In one of the latest positive pieces of news for the anti-terror efforts in Syria, Daesh chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly killed in a night-time aid by US commandos.
The self-proclaimed ‘caliph’ – the architect behind atrocious terror attacks and brutal executions – had spent 10 months in an American prison in Iraq after his arrest for participation in the anti-US insurgency in 2004.
“He was prepared by the Americans to play that role and we don't believe this recent story of killing him,” al-Assad says. “Maybe he is killed, but it's not about what they've mentioned. The whole story was about whitewashing the American hand from being hand in a glove with the terrorists during the last, not only few years, but during the last decades.
“When Saddam Hussein was captured, they showed him. When he was executed, they showed the event of the execution. When his children were killed, they showed their bodies. The same with al-Gaddafi. Why didn't they show us the body of Bin Laden? Why didn't they show us the body of Al-Baghdadi?
“Just a fake story about being against terrorists and this very sophisticated operation. Maybe he has been killed because he has expired as a person [and] they needed somebody else. And maybe they wanted to change the whole name of ISIS to another name to bring ISIS as a moderate organisation to be used again in the market against the Syrian government.”
On what’s next in Idlib
The province of Idlib, mostly controlled by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, remains the last major stronghold of anti-government forces.
According to al-Assad, it won’t take long to liberate Idlib but the plan now is to give a chance to the civilians to leave the area before the final showdown. “Our interest lies in killing the terrorists in order to protect the civilians, not leaving those innocent civilians under the supervision of the terrorists,” he explains.
On rebuilding Syria
Cornered by Syrian troops and Russian airstrikes, the Idlib terrorists are posed to surrender sooner or later. And however preoccupied President al-Assad may be with the restive province, a transition from war to peace will be needed next.
That transition is complicated by international sanctions, but al-Assad is adamant that Syria will be able to overcome it – with a little help from its friends.
“We have the human resources enough to build our country,” the president reassures, “so I would not worry about this embargo, but definitely, the friendly countries like China, Russia and Iran, will have priority in this rebuilding.”
When asked whether the EU member states would be allowed to participate, he answeres flatly: “Every country which stood against Syria will not have a chance to be part of this reconstruction.”
What about Britain?
*Daesh is a terror group banned by Russia, the US, and numerous other states.