President al-Assad to RIA Novosti and Sputnik interview (Part II)

President al-Assad to RIA Novosti and Sputnik: We are prepared to accept any militant willing to drop arms

31 March، 2016
President Bashar al-Assad said in the second part of the interview he gave to the Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and Sputnik that the Syrian state is prepared to accept any militant who wants to lay down his weapon.

The President made it clear that he doesn’t believe there is a public opinion in Syria that wants the Russian military support to stop.

He explained that since terrorism, though reduced, is still strong due to its supporters in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others, so, the size of the Russian forces in the country should not be less than the force necessary to fight terrorism.

The Russian presence, he added, is linked to the issue of fighting terrorism, and later to the geopolitical condition in the world.

He also stressed that the issue of holding early presidential elections is up to popular will.

The following is the full text of the second part of the interview:

Question 1: There is talk that some people are calling for early presidential elections in Syria. Are you prepared to go to early presidential elections?

President Assad: This hasn’t been proposed as part of the current political process. What is proposed is that after the constitution, there will be parliamentary elections. These parliamentary elections will show the size of political forces in the country, and consequently a new government will be formed according to the shares of political forces in the new parliament. Presidential elections are a completely different issue. This is linked to the popular situation in Syria. Is there a popular will for early presidential elections? If such will exist, I have no problem. This is natural when it comes in response to popular will, and not in response to some opposition forces. This issue touches every Syrian citizen because every citizen will have a vote concerning this president.

So, in principle, I don’t have a problem, because a president cannot act without popular support. And if such a president has popular support, he should be always prepared for such a step. So, I can say that in principle I don’t have a problem, but in order to take this step, we need the popular opinion in Syria, not the opinion of the government or the president.

Question 2: Nevertheless, Mr. President, the leader’s opinion is important for his people. That’s why I would like to ask you whether you agree to have the president elected by the parliament, as is the case in some countries. Have you reached an agreement for Syrians outside Syria to take part in electing the president? There is a lot of talk about this too. What is the method that you will adopt? What do you think is the most appropriate way for Syria?

President Assad: I think it is better for us in Syria for the president to be elected directly by the citizens and not by parliament. This will free him from the influence of different political forces, and for his relationship to be subject only to the general popular condition. My personal opinion is that this will be better in this case. As to Syrians taking part in the elections, the wider the participation of the Syrians – everyone carrying a Syrian passport and identity card, the more powerful the elections will be through confirming the legitimacy of the state, the president, and the constitution which regulates this process. This includes every Syrian, in or outside Syria. But of course holding the elections outside Syria is a procedural matter and is not discussed as a political principle. Every Syrian citizen everywhere in the world has the right to vote, but we haven’t yet discussed how these elections will be conducted, because the issue of early presidential elections hasn’t been raised to start with. This is linked to the measures which will enable those to come to a voting station overseen by the Syrian state.

Question 3: How do you assess the reconciliation process in the war in Syria? You have a lot of partners. Is it possible that there are groups with whom you are not prepared to discuss the future of Syria under any circumstances? Which groups are these? I would like also to ask about international peacekeeping forces. Are you prepared to accept such forces (UN forces) in order to make reconciliation more enduring?

President Assad: The truce was relatively good, and better than many have expected, because it was expected to fail. We can say that the rate of the success of the truce was good or a little better than good. As you know there were negotiations between the Russians and the Americans in order to identify the terrorist groups, and there was no agreement about these groups. But for us and for the Russian side, we haven’t changed our assessment concerning the terrorist groups. There was a proposal to avoid this pitfall to the effect that every group or organization which accepts the truce and moves towards dialogue, with the Russian side or the Syrian state, will be considered by us to have moved from terrorist action towards political action. This is what we try to achieve.

That’s why I believe that what is more important than classifying terrorist organizations now is to accelerate reconciliation and overreach processes with the militants who want to lay down their weapons or fight against terrorism with the Syrian state and the friends who support the Syrian state, particularly Russia and Iran.

That’s why for us as a state, the general principle is that we are prepared to accept any militant who wants to lay down his weapon, with the objective of bringing conditions back to normality and stop the Syrian bloodshed.

Question 4: What about UN peacekeeping forces? Are you prepared to receive them in order to make this reconciliation more enduring?

President Assad: This is unrealistic, because the work of such forces should be usually based on international agreements, and these agreements should be approved by states. So, what are these states? In this case, there are no states. There is only the Syrian state, as one side, while the other side is not a state but terrorist groups. Can the United Nations sign an agreement with terrorist groups? This is completely illogical.

Even if they wanted to do that, what are these forces? They are unknown and unclear. You are talking about gangs which appear, disappear, merge with each other, and divide again against each other. So, it is an unclear situation. At the same time, from a military perspective, this requires two armies standing on the two sides of the borders with an agreement identifying accurately the geographical positions. All of that doesn’t exist. So, if we agreed and brought in such forces, how would they act? That’s why I say that this is not possible.

Question 5: How do you measure what Russia, and its armed forces, is contributing to the military success in the war against terrorism in Syria?

President Assad: I like to talk about facts on the ground. I might say that there has been a great success; and somebody else might say that there was little success. This differs according to the people involved. But let’s conduct a simple comparison. How was the situation before the Russian intervention, when the Western coalition had been acting on the ground since it was created more than 18 months ago? Terrorism was expanding on a large scale in Syria and Iraq. And how has the position become six months after the Russian intervention? Terrorist forces are retreating, especially IS. So, reality says that the Russians have achieved a great success from our point of view, especially in the military field, in the battlefield, in defeating terrorism, to a great extent. In any case, the battle is not over yet and is still going on.

Question 6: If we go back to the issue of Russian bases, Staffan de Mistura proposed in a plan he presented in Geneva a provision saying that there should be no foreign forces in Syria. Do you believe, for instance, that Syria will need the Hmeimim base permanently?

President Assad: First, inviting foreign forces to a certain state is the right of that state. It is a sovereign right, and it exists in many countries of the world. So, no one can prevent this, unless there was a constitution which spells that out clearly and says that this state is not allowed to invite foreign forces. Such a constitution doesn’t exist now, and I don’t believe there is a public opinion in Syria that wants this Russian support to stop, whether now or in the future, and consequently the departure of Russian forces.

The second point, in the present condition, we are still in the middle of the battle. It’s not over yet. The answer should be about the Hmeimim base, and the size of the forces in it should be proportionate to the size of the tasks these forces carry out and the size of terrorism in Syria. Terrorism is still strong. It is true that we succeeded, with the Russian forces, to reduce the size of the areas in which it exists, but it is still strong and volunteers are still coming from outside Syria. Turkey continues to support terrorism, and so does Saudi Arabia and others. So, the size of the forces on the base should not be less than the force necessary to fight terrorism. After we defeat terrorism completely, there will be a different discussion. I believe that the Russian state itself will reduce the size of the forces which have no tasks to carry out, and there will be a different discussion.

Question 7: But we have already reduced the size of these forces. Nevertheless, for many, the existence of the S-400 anti-aircraft system in Hmeimim is a cause for concern. In your opinion, until when will this system remain? Is there a timeframe? Have you asked Russia to give you this anti-aircraft system?

President Assad: I believe that the parties which are annoyed by the Russian presence are annoyed because the Russian presence is fighting terrorism. Had President Putin decided to send his forces to support the terrorists, they would have applauded him. This is the problem with Western countries. The problem for them is not having a Russian base in this period.

There is also another issue: they don’t want a Russian presence on the international arena, neither politically, nor militarily, nor economically. So, any action taken by the Russian state and Russia, in its real position as a first-class superpower, and not a second-class one, as the Americans want Russia to be, any such act will annoy the West in general. This is why they are annoyed. As to keeping the Russian forces in Syria, as I said before, this is linked to the issue of fighting terrorism, and later to the geopolitical condition in the world.

For us as a small state, and for many other small states, we feel safer and more comfortable when there is international balance. So, when part of this international balance is in the form of military action or military bases, we welcome it because it serves us in the political sense. This is a very important issue for us and for many countries in the world.

Intervention: So, there is no talk about a timeframe for moving the S400 anti-aircraft system to the Syrian army now?

President Assad: No, there’s nothing now. And this is not linked to its being in Lattakia. This has to do with direct contracts between us and the Russian army, procurement contracts.

Question 8: Can we identify the volume of the contracts according to which Russia provides military weapons to Syria and the Syrian Army? What are the newly-signed contracts?

President Assad: In these circumstances, we focus on the weapons we need directly in fighting terrorism. This might be mainly medium and light weapons, and consequently we don’t think it’s necessary now to focus on strategic weapons in this case and in this type of war. As to the volume, in the financial sense, we do not usually announce the volume of such contracts. This remains between the Syrian and Russian armies.

Question 9: Could we move now to a more peaceful subject? How are you preparing for the parliamentary elections on April 13th? Are you comfortable with what’s happening now?

President Assad: The good thing is that after five years of war and attempts to destroy the Syrian state and strike at the structure which basically depends on the constitution, we can, despite all that, carry out constitutional measures. This proves that the state and the entity of the country are still there despite terrorism. The other thing, which is more positive for me personally, is the size of unprecedented participation in the parliamentary elections in Syria. It is the largest in terms of the number of candidates which reached many folds the numbers in previous elections. I believe that this can be attributed to the fact that Syrians still adhere to the constitution and is an expression of their desire to strengthen the legitimacy of their state and their constitution. This is a very powerful popular indicator. Consequently, I can say that in terms of the first and second factors, yes, I am comfortable.

Intervention: Yet, the political process in Syria is taking place under conditions of a land intervention in the country. It might not be a fully-announced intervention, but Turkey is always shelling Syrian territory. Is there a red line after which you lose patience and deal with this as a direct aggression? Is there a red line which is being transgressed by intervening countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia which will force you to take tougher actions?

President Assad: As for Turkey, first, and also for Saudi Arabia, from the first weeks, and probably from the first months of the war on Syria, they transgressed all the red lines. Everything they did from the beginning was an aggression, a political aggression and a military aggression through supporting and arming the terrorists, and an indirect aggression by their artillery shelling and sometimes their military violations.

Intervention: What is Erdogan doing?

President Assad: First, he is supporting terrorists directly. He allows them to move inside Turkey to carry out military exercises with their tanks, and not only as individuals. He provides them with money which comes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar through Turkey. He sells the oil stolen by IS. At the same time, he used to fire artillery shells to support the terrorists when the Syrian Army was advancing. He used to send Turkish terrorists to fight with other terrorists in Syria. This continues to happen. The aggression against the Russian aircraft in Syrian airspace was also an aggression against Syria, because that aircraft was in our airspace and consequently under Syrian sovereignty. He has done all these things from the beginning, in addition to his statements which constitute an intervention in internal affairs. Everything Erdogan has done is an aggression in every sense of the word. We can say that we have lost patience and lost hope a long time ago that this person might change. But today, the war against Erdogan and Saudi Arabia takes place through striking at the terrorists, for Erdogan’s army, not the Turkish army, consists of the terrorists fighting in Syria today. When we strike at these terrorists in Syria, this will lead to defeating Erdogan directly. So, our response should be inside Syria first. I believe when we defeat terrorism, the Turkish people is not against Syria, and has no animosity towards Syria, the relations will be good. This is in case Erdogan remained in his place.

Question 10: You visited Moscow last autumn with many issues to be discussed. What are the exact things you and President Putin agreed on? Have you signed any agreements? What are the provisions of your written agreement? Or do you continue to consult with each other based on a private relationship between you, which allows you not to write that down on paper?

President Assad: That visit was conducted in special circumstances. It came a little less than two weeks before the beginning of the Russian support to Syrian forces. So, there’s no doubt that this imposed itself on the visit’s agenda. That was the main subject and the joint vision between President Putin and me about the next stage of fighting terrorism and political action. The visit concentrated solely on these two subjects. There were no agreements, just consultations and dialogue. We focused on two points: first, the military operation which started at that time, and the necessity to strike terrorism. The second point was how to use the military operation in support of the political process. President Putin’s questions were about the same points you raised a short while ago, about our perception of the political process which might start in Geneva or in any other place at that time. These were the only subjects we discussed during that visit.

Question 11: Mr. President, I’m grateful to you for this candid interview. There might be something I should have asked but didn’t, and you might want to add something.

President Assad: First of all, I would like to thank you for visiting Syria in these particular circumstances; and I would like to say that I can convey, through your important media organization, the thanks of every Syrian citizen to every Russian citizen for the support extended by Russia to Syria during the crisis, whether the support was moral, humanitarian, or recently military. Every Russian citizen was a main supporter for President Putin in taking such a decision. Today, despite these difficult circumstances, we experience the joy of reclaiming the city of Palmyra which is part of the human heritage of the whole world. We believe that in addition to the Syrian Army, which was determined to reclaim it, Russia had a major role, in addition to Iran and the other forces fighting with Syria. Once again, I would like to thank every Russian citizen, through you, and to say that the relations we have built over a period of 60 years have become stronger and more solid. And we have a great hope for the Russian role on the global arena, and not only in Syria, in fighting terrorism and restoring balance to global politics. Thank you for coming.

[Click here for Part 1 of the Interview > ]