Mr. President. Thanks for giving us the opportunity. This is your first interview with American media since President Trump has taken office. Have you had any communications with President Trump directly or indirectly, or anybody in his administration?
No, not yet.
This is an opportunity for you to convey a message to President Trump, if you have one. What would you like to say to him?
I wouldn’t convey the message through the media. I would send it through different — channel, maybe diplomatic channel. But any message for us is the public one. We don’t have two messages. We have one stand, one position toward what’s happening in Syria. And it’s about fighting terrorism.
You said yesterday, I believe, that what you have heard from the new administration is “promising.” Explain what you meant.
The position of President Trump since he started his, the campaign for presidency till this moment is that the priority is to fight terrorism. And we agree– about this priority. That’s our position in Syria. The priority is to fight terrorism. And that’s what’s mean, what I mean by promising.
You indicated that you thought there was some way for cooperation between the United States and Syria. But you didn’t explain what that would be. What sort of cooperation can you envision?
Against terrorists and against terrorism. That’s– self-evident for us. This is beside having cooperation between any two nations, but in the meantime, in these circumstances, the priority is to have cooperation in fighting terrorism between the different nations, including Russia and Iran and Syria of course.
The president has tasked his Secretary of Defense with developing plans for — defeating ISIS — or Daesh Among the proposals they are reportedly considering is using more special forces and even military assets such as Apache helicopters inside Syria. And arming Kurdish fighters who are fighting– Daesh in the North. If such moves would defeat ISIS., would you welcome them?
Could the– American prowess defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan or in other place? No. It cannot. It is not enough to have these Apache or F-16 or F-35, whatever want to– to– to label it– to defeat a terrorist. It’s more comprehensive way of dealing with that complicated issue.
So if you want to start genuinely as United States to do so, it must be through the Syria government. We are here. We are the Syrians. We– we– we own this country as Syrians. No– nobody else, nobody would understand it like us. So you cannot defeat the terrorism without cooperation with the people in the government of any country.
But you have welcomed Russian troops into your country. Would you welcome American troops into your country?
We invited the Russians, and the Russians were genuine regarding this– issue. If the Americans are genuine, of course they are welcome. Like any other country, we want to defeat and to fight– the terrorists. Of course with no hesitation we can say that. But–
So you want American troops to come into Syria to help fight ISIS?
Troops is part of the cooperation. Again, let’s go back to the comprehensive. You cannot talk about sending troops, if you’re not genuine, if you don’t have a clear political position toward not only the terrorism, toward the sovereignty of Syria, toward the unity of Syria.
All these factors would lead to– to trust where you can send your troops. That’s what happened with the Russians. They didn’t only send their troops. First of all, there’s a clear political position regarding the– those factors. This is where the Russians could come and succeed in fighting the terrorists and say–
Do you see cooperation between the United States and Russia to attack ISIS in Syria?
It is essential. Any cooperation in any conflict around the world, it needs the– let’s say the rapprochement between the Russians and the Americans. It’s very essential. Not only for Syria–
Well, you you talk to the Russians all the time, don’t you?
Of course, yes.
Yeah? When’s the last time you spoke to President Putin?
Few weeks ago.
All right. What’d you talk about?
About the problems in Syria. (LAUGH) About the advancement– of the Syrian Army in Syria–
Okay. So are you going to try– right. Are you going to try to broker some sort of arrangement between the United States and Russia in this fight?
There’s direct– contact between them. And– President Putin had a telephone call with– President Trump– week or– or so. And they talked about the different issues, including Syria. So they don’t need my role to– to do so. And we don’t have any contact with the Americans to help the Russian make– contact or improve their relations. We’re not in that position.
President Trump also recently said he, “absolutely wants to create safe zones inside Syria to protect refugees.” And possibly allow many of them to return. If such a move would help protect your country’s endangered citizens, would you support that?
Actually, it won’t– it won’t. Safe zone for the Syrians could only happen when you have– stability and security. Where you don’t have terrorists. Where you don’t have flow and support of those terrorists by the neighboring countries or by Western– countries.
This is where you can have natural safe zones, which is our country. They don’t need safe zones at all. It’s much more– viable, much more practical and less costly to have stability than to create safe zones. It’s not realistic idea at all.
Upwards of half of your country’s population has been displaced. How can you say that safe zones to protect them from bombardment would not be helpful?
The first thing you have to ask, “Why were they displaced?” If you don’t answer that question, you cannot answer the rest. Were displaced for two reasons. First of all, the terrorist acts and the support from the outside. Second, the embargo of Syria. Many people didn’t only leave Syria because of the security issues.
As you see, Damascus is safe today. You– it– it’s nearly n– normal life, not completely. But– they don’t– find a way for life in Syria. So they have to travel abroad in order to find their living. So if you lift the embargo and if you stop supporting the terrorists. I’m not talking about the United States, I’m talking about– about everyone who supported terrorists, including the United States during Obama’s administration. If you stop all these acts, most of those people will go back to their country.
There are, what? 4.8 million Syrian refugees since this crisis began. Just as way of comparison, that is more than four times the total number of Palestinian refugees from the events of 1947 and ’48. Do you accept that this is a humanitarian disaster?
It is a humanitarian disaster created by the Western support of those terrorists of course, and the region supported by Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It didn’t happen just like this.
And do you bear any responsibility at all for this disaster?
Regarding the policies that I undertake since I be, since the beginning of the crisis were– supporting the dialogue between the Syrians, fighting terrorists, and supporting reconciliation. And they succeed. So no. Regarding these policies, I think we are correct. And we are continuing on these pillars for– for the future of– of– of Syria, regarding this crisis.
As you know, President Trump has signed a very controversial executive order barring refugees– immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, but specifically all Syrian refugees, saying that “Their entry into the country would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The premise is that some of them are terrorists. Do you agree with President Trump on this?
This question has two aspects. The first one is American. This is American issue, and it’s related to the sovereignty of the American– nation. Every country has the right to– put any regulations to enter their country. We can disagree and or agree.
But if you ask me as president, as official in Syria and the Syrian state, my– responsibility not to go and ask any president to allow the Syrians to go there and to have refu– refuge in that country. My responsibility is to restore the stability in order to bring them back to Syria and find refuge in their country. So I’m not going to discuss that this is right or wrong. This is American issue.
But the question was, “Are some of these refugees in your view aligned with terrorists?”
Oh definitely. And–
Definitely. You can find it on the net. The same picture that you saw them, in some cases of course, in some instances, those terrorists in Syria holding the machine gun or killing people, they are– peaceful refugees in– in Europe or in the West in general. Yeah, that’s true. It–
So how many terrorists do you believe are among the 4.8 million Syrian refugees–
No one– no one has any number. Nobody knows. Because nobody knows–
Do you believe it’s a significant number?
Because nobody knows all the terrorists to give a percentage. No one at all, invisible.
Do you believe it’s a significant number?
It’s not about significant, ’cause you don’t need significant number to commit atrocities. 11th of September– it happened by only 15– terrorists out of maybe millions of immigrants in the United States. So it’s not about the number. It’s about the quality. It’s about the intention.
So if what you’re saying is correct, then President Trump would be justified in keeping them out of the United States.
I’m not American to justify it. Only as American people who say “This is against the interests of the United States or with the interests.” From our side, we can discuss it as value. This is with the value of the humanitarian situation in the world or not. That’s how we can discuss it. But again, I can only speak as president. For me the priority is to bring those citizens to their country. Not to help them immigrate. That is the natural duty, according to the constitution and to the law.
Would you welcome all of Syria’s refugees back into your country?
Definitely. Even the terrorists?
I don’t have to welcome them as president. I don’t own the country. It’s not my house. It’s not my company. It’s not my farm. This is country to every Syrian.
But if you believe that some of them are terrorists, what would you do with them when they return to Syria?
It doesn’t matter what I believe. What’s matter is what the law would say about every person committed any act against this country. Take into consideration that we give amnesty in Syria– to thousands of– people who committed– actions or acts against their country as part of the reconciliation.
How do you expect them to return? What is your vision or plan for bringing Syria’s refugees back into Syria?
Already many of them, not a huge number, but many of them st– came back to Syria. Many of them. In spite of the– security issues and the embargo. So the majority of Syrians would like to come back to their country. This is natural for every citizen. They will come back when they– when there’s security and where there’s no embargo.
Your military just last month drove the rebels from Eastern– Aleppo. Do you see this as a turning point in Syria’s Civil War? And do you believe you’ve now won this war?
No, it’s not turning point. Turning point was when we took the decision to fight terrorism in spite all the propaganda against us abroad. Especially in the West, and against all, every pressure. This is, that was the turning point. Aleppo is– important steps against the terrorists, in the fight against terrorism.
But I cannot say a turning point, because we’re still going in the same way in the same direction. We haven’t changed our direction. Maybe for the terrorists a turning point? They better answer. Maybe for their– masters in the West and in the region, it could be. But they have to answer. I cannot answer on their behalf.
I was asking you before about potential cooperation between the United States and Syria. But the problem that many would have with that is the continued allegations of human rights abuses by your government. Now just today, we have a new report from Amnesty International — about — Saydnaya prison, human slaughterhouse they call it, 5,000 to 13,000– detainees hanged in mass in mass hangings there. Horrific conditions. Trials of blindfolded prisoners, one to three minutes– in length. No lawyers. Secret, all in secret. These, this would on its face be contrary to every aspect of international law. What do you know about what’s going on in that prison?
Let’s first of all talk about the first part of your question, which is the problem how to for the United States to open relation with Syria regarding the human rights. I will ask you, how could you have this close, very close relation and team relation with Saudi Arabia? Do you consider behaving as a human right– criteria?
Yes, but I’m not interviewing the King of Saudi Arabia right now. I’m– I’m interviewing you.
Yeah, I know, but–
I’m asking you about reports of human rights abuses in your prison, in your country–
Yeah, of course, yeah– yeah. You own the question, I own the answers. So that’s my answer. (LAUGH) So when you answer about Saudi Arabia and your relation, you can put your pos– on that position. Second, the United States is in no position to talk about human rights. Since Vietnam war till this moment, they killed millions of civilians. If you don’t want to talk about the 1.5 million in Iraq without any– s– assignment by the Security Council. So the United States is in no position to say, “I don’t open– relations because of human rights.” And they have to use one standard. This is first.
The second part now. Now I can move to the– to the ra– to– that– that report, like many other reports– published by Amnesty International put into question the credibility of Amnesty International. And we never look at it as unbiased. It’s always biased and politicized. And it’s shame for such organization to publish a report without a shred of evidence. If you, they said, it’s “based on interviews– on interviews.” What about the document? What– what about– the concrete evidence? Not single concrete–
Interviews with four former prison officials and guards, three former Syrian judges, three doctors at the prisons.
It means nothing.
It means nothing?
No– no, it’s interview. No– no, you– you, when you be– when you need or to make a report, you need evidence, concrete evidence. You can make any report. You can pay money to anyone like Qatar did last year. They paid money for such a report, and they brought their own– witnesses. And they made a report. So basically–
The pross– I– I want to just read you something from the report. “The process of the hangings is authorized by officials at the highest levels of the government. Death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti of Syria and by either the Minister of Defense or the Chief of Staff of the Army who are deputized to act on behalf of pres– President Bashar al-Assad.
First of all, what the evidence? So this is first.
Is it true or not?
Second– no– no, it’s not true, definitely not true. The–
How do you know? Do you know what goes on in that prison? Have you been there?
No, I haven’t been. I– I’ve been in the presidential palace. Not in the prison. (LAUGH)
So here you have a very disturbing report about something going on in one of your prisons. Are you going to investigate it?
So– so Amnesty International knows more about Syria than me, according to you. No, that’s no true. No. They– they haven’t been to Syria. They only base their reports on allegations. They can bring anyone, doesn’t matter what’s his title. You can forge anything these days. And we’re living in a fake news era, as you know. Everybody knows this. So we don’t have to depend on this. Second. You have to talk about reality. They said in– in their– report that we made “serial executions.” Is that correct? What they mentioned–
Yes, mass hangings.
First of all, execution is part of the Syria law. If the Syrian government or institution wants to do it, they can make it legally because it’s been therefore indicated.
Secret trials. No t– no lawyers?
Why do they need it? They can make it legal. They don’t need anything secret.
Is that legal in your country?
Yeah– yeah, of course it’s legal. For decades since independence, the execution, according to the law after a trial is a legal action. Like– any other court in many countries in this region.
Will you allow international monitors to visit that prison and inspect and investigate these reports?
It depends on the credibility of that organization. Not anyone. ‘Cause they’re going to use, “This is it,” just to– demonize the Syrian government more and more and more, like what’s happening.
This is not the first time that very serious human rights– allegations have been made. Just last week– woman in Spain, Syrian– filed a lawsuit– accusing nine of your senior government intelligence and security officials of human rights abuses. Her brother had disappeared in one of your prisons. The la– you asked about documents.
The lawyers who have filed this accusing your government of human rights abuses– have collected 3,000 pages of evidence. And over 50,000 photographs taken by one of your former government’s photographers, showing emaciated, tortured bodies in your prisons.
Who verified the pictures? Who the verified that they’re not edited and photo-shopped and so on?
Have you seen the photos?
No, I didn’t.
Have you seen the photos?
No– no– no. I saw– I saw some photos in– previous– report. But it’s not about the photos. How can you verify the photo?
You have said that the–
Do you have a photo?
I do have the photos.
Can you show it to me.
Yes, I’d be happy to. Here.
Okay. This photo– have you verified who are those?
I can tell you–
You should– be– becu– because you have it and because you mention it in– in front of your audience.
There’s a number of photos. You may want to–
You have to convince your audience. You cannot mention such a picture without verifying who are those and where and everything about it, just to put it in front of the audience and tell them, “Oh they– they’ve been killed by the Syrian (UNINTEL).”
The woman who filed the lawsuit, the Syrian woman who filed the lawsuit says, she saw her brother in those photographs.
Then these are allegations. You have to talk about concrete evidence, at the end. That’s– that’s how you can base your judgment. Not– anyone can say whatever he wants.
You said that you believe these photos may have been doctored. The U.S. State Department gave these photos to the American F.B.I. Crime Lab, digital lab. They examined these photos and said, “The bodies and scenes depicted,” this– these are 242 of these images, “The bodies and the scenes depicted exhibit no artifacts or inconsisties– inconsistencies that would indicate they have been manipulated. As a result of the above observations, all of these 242 images appear to depict real people and events.”
Who said that?
The FBI. Have you seen their report?
No. When was that?
That was– 2015.
Yeah, and the question, when your institutions were honest about what’s happening in Syria. That’s the question. Never. For us, never. So we don’t have to rely on what they say. Whether, if the FBI says something, it’s not some– something, it’s not evidence for anyone, especially– for us.
The most important thing. If you take these photos to any court in your country, could they convict any criminal regarding these? Could they tell you what– what this crime, who committed? If you don’t have this full picture, you cannot make judgment. It’s just propaganda. It’s just fake news. They want to demonize the Syrian government. In every war, you can have any individual crime. It happened here all over the world anywhere. But it’s not a policy– it’s not policy–
But let me just– if I hear what you’re saying, the F.B.I. is just forwarding propag– prop– propagating propaganda. Amnesty International is propagating propaganda. Everybody is conspiring against the Syrian government. Why?
Ask them. We’re not– we don’t have–
You’re the one– you’re the one making the allegation.
No– no. I’m not making allegation. They supported the terrorists, and you go back to what they said. John Kerry, few months ago said– and– by his voice– that “We were watching ISIS– advancing and we expected the Syrian president to make concessions.” What does it mean? Obama said it in– in interview in– in one of his speeches that “The war in Iraq created ISIS.”
So who supported ISIS? We didn’t create it. You created it. The United States created all this mess. Who supported the rebels and called them “moderate rebels,” while they became ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria? We didn’t. So it’s not responsibility. These are facts. This is reality. We didn’t give money, we didn’t support these terrorists. Your country supported them. U.K., France publicly, and they said they sent armaments. We didn’t. So you can take that what I s– it’s not my allegation. It’s your– official allegation including Joe Biden, the vice president of Obama. He said about Saudi Arabia and other countries supporting– this —
That’s Saudi Arabia, but the uni– but the United States and it’s–
So if it’s allegation, it’s their allegation. It’s American allegation before it’s been Syrian allegation.
The United States and its coalition partners have been bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It’s supporting the Iraqi Army in its efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIS. How can you say that the United States is supporting ISIS?
Can you explain to me how could they defeat ISIS. in Iraq, and ik– and– ISIS. was expanding since the American coalition started attacking Syria?
Is it expanding now?
It’s been expan– no.
s it expanding now?
It started shrinking after the Russian intervention, not the American one. How could they use our field or oil fields and export with thousand of barrel– of barrel trucks to Turkey without being seen by your drones and by your satellites, while the Russians could be able to do so and attack them and destroy them? It’s for all the fasities– facilities. How? Yes, this is cosmetic campaign against I.S.I.S.
Just to be clear. I have shown you the F.B.I. report. I have shown you the photographs. I’ve shown you the Amnesty International report. Will you cooperate in investigations (FOOTSTEPS) to determine if these very serious reports are in fact true?
You showed me many things, but you didn’t show you a single evidence.
I showed you an FBI report.
No– no. That– it’s not evidence at all. It’s– it’s actually the contrary. Any American institutions for us during the k– Syrian crisis was against Riyadh, since it was the opposite of the truth. That’s how we look at it. So it’s not Syrian institution. We don’t care about what they say.
For me, what I care about is what reports I have from Syrian people. And we had investigations ’cause we have many claims regarding not the mass crimes, actually more individual– acts. And we’ve been investigating many. And many people were punished. But that happens in every war.
Do you, are you disturbed enough about any of this to try to determine the truth yourself?
I think if you’d show it to the Western officials, to– to ask them that question, “Are they disturbed to see what’s happening since they started supporting the terrorists in Syria, this killing, and this destruction?” That’s the question. Of course, I’m disturbed. I’m Syrian. I have this natural–
You are disturbed about this. About these reports–
What– what’s happening in Syria. No– no, not about the report. I don’t care about those–
Not– not about this, okay.
No– no. I’m– I’m– I’m disturbed about what’s happening in Syria. It’s my country. It’s being destroyed by proxy terrorists, of course.
You have acknowledged that your troops in this war have committed “mistakes” in its prosecution against the rebels and that “anyone could be punished.” So how many mistakes are we talking about?
No I didn’t say that. I never said– or– I said, there’s al– “There are always mistakes in any action.” That’s a human–
So how many mistakes are we talking about? How many– how many innocent civilians have been killed by your government’s mistakes?
Nobody knows, because thousand and thousand of those are missing people. Nobody knows the– anything about their fate. Nobody at all. So– you cannot tell till the end of this war.
Was it a mistake to bomb hospitals in Aleppo?
We never bombed hospitals in Aleppo. Why to bomb hospitals? Can you convince your offi– your audience that we have interest in bombing hospitals? Actually this is against our interest. So this is against our interest to bomb hospitals, if it’s used as hospital. And the proof that it was a lie.
Every time they talk about bombing hospital, every time they say, “This is the last hospital in Eastern part of Aleppo.” And the second time, they s– they talk about another hospital and they say the same. They bombed the last hospital, so it’s lies and lies and lies. We can spend the whole interview talking about lies, and we can talk about the truth and reality. I have to talk about reality.
Is it a mistake to use barrel bombs and chlorine gas?
You have to choose which part of the narrative is correct. Once they said we are using “indiscriminate bombs,” and they called it– barrel bombs. The other day, they said we– “targeted hospitals and schools and convoys.” We either have precise armaments or we have indiscriminate armaments. So which one do you choose?
Will you– (CHUCKLE) you do acknowledge though that innocent civilians, there have been civilian casualties in this war?
Yes, of course. Every war is a bad war– every war is a bad war. We cannot talk about good war. Let’s agree about this. Every war has casualty. Every war has innocent people to pay the price. This is the bad thing about war. That’s why we need to end that war. But having casualty doesn’t mean not to defend our country against the terrorists and against eh invasion from abroad through those proxies by foreign countries, like the Western countries and the regional ones. That’s self-evident.
President– President Obama gave a speech in 2013 about his, about the U.S. counterterrorism efforts, including drone strikes. And he says, “While defending those strikes, nevertheless it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties for me and those in my chain of command. Those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.” Are you haunted by the deaths of innocent civilians caused by your government’s– military action?
That important– example about– the armament. It’s not about what bomb do you use, whatev– whether you call it barrel or any other name. It’s not about that. It’s about the way you use your intentions. That’s why the state of the art– drones with their missiles, the American ones killed much more civilians than terrorists. So it’s not about the– the drone. It’s– it’s not about the armament. It’s about your intentions. In our case, in Syria, of course we have to avoid the civilians because, not because they are our people, not only because they are our people and this is a moral issue.
It’s actually because it’s going to play into the hands of the terrorists. If we kill the civilians intentionally, it means we are helping the terrorists. So why would we do it? Why we are defending the civilians and killing the civilians? It doesn’t work. This is contradiction. If we are killing the civilians, who are we defending Syria, against who and for who?
You were asked just yesterday– “Are all means justified in this war?” And you said, your answer was, “Yes. It’s a duty.” So you can use every mean in order to defend the Syrian people.
No, it’s not to defend. Torture is not to defend. What– why do you torture? What the relation between torture and defending your country?
So where do you draw the line?
No. You have rules. You have very clear ru– rules like any other, like any Army. When you want to defend your country, use your armaments against the terrorists. This is the only rule that I’m talking about. This is all the means that you can use in order to– to defend your country militarily, if I’m talking about military. Of course, you have to defend it politically, economically and every sense of the word. But if you talk about militarily, torture is not part of defending your country.
Last question. Can you just give us your vision of a settlement of this conflict? And can it under any circumstances, will you be willing to step aside if it can end this disaster of a war for the Syrian people?
Yes. Definitely. For me, whenever the Syrian people don’t want me to be in that position, I will leave right away. This is very simple answer for me, and I don’t have to think about it. And I will, I’m not worried about this point. I would worry if I’m in that position and I don’t have the public support. This is going to be a big problem for me, and– I can’t bear it. And I cannot produce anyway.
Regarding the– the first part. How would I see the solution? Two pillars. The first one is fighting terrorism. Without fighting terrorism and defeating the terrorists, no other solution would be fruitful at all– at all. Any kind of solution. In parallel, dialogue between the Syrians about the future of Syria.
That would include anything, everything regarding the whole political system, the whole Syria in– in every sense of the word. Then we can get elections and can have nationality ga– government, and you can have– parliamentarian elections. Then if the Syrian people think about– early presidential elections or any kind of presidential election, that will be viable–
So earlier than the completion of your term, which I believe is in 2021?
If– if there is public consensus about this, if there is–
Well, how would you– how would you determine whether there’s public consensus?
We can discuss it at that time. It’s still early to talk about it. We haven’t finished any of the stages that I’m talking about. So any other thoughts about how, because we don’t know what circumstances are we going to face that time. But at the end, when you live in a country, you can sense Syria is not– it’s not– it’s not continent.
It’s small country. We can deal with each other. We can know each other as– as society. We can– you can sense, you can see it if there– there’s public consensus. And then if you want to do– do something documented, you can have referendum. That’s very clear.
Do you have any cause for optimism?
Of course. Without that optimism, we wouldn’t fight for six years. The main optimism that we’ve had that we’re going to defeat those terrorists and their masters. And we are going to restore stability in Syria. And more important than this in my optimism is– determination of the Syrian people. This is very important source for– optimism.
Without that determination, you wouldn’t see Syria in these very difficult and exceptional circumstances still living the minimum life, let’s say, if not the normal life. But they need minimum life to survive and for the government to offer different– services and– subsidies and– and so on.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Thank you very much for you.
As with all interviews granted by President Bashar al-Assad, this interview was filmed by his presidential press office. No editorial changes were made to the content.
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