CIA’s 1986 report presents blueprint for collapse of Syria

16 February 2017

A CIA report on Syria has written in 1986 presents clues regarding the riots began in 2011 and its aftermath. In the report, CIA emphasises that ‘‘a Sunni regime controlled by business-oriented moderates’’ would ideally serve for US interests

It has not yet been possible to learn the whole role of the United States in the "regime change" operations began in Syria in 2011.

However, a report within the CIA’s declassified documents during previous weeks allows us to forge a link between the scenarios predicted by the American intelligence for Syria in the 1980s and today’s situation in Syria.

The memo dated July 1986 and entitled "Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change" was prepared by CIA only for high-level officials of the Ronald Reagan administration.

The report essentially considers possible scenarios that could lead to the ouster of Hafez Al-Assad, who was Syria's President from 1971 to 2000, Prime Minister from 1970 to 71, or other dramatic changes in Syria.


Before reviewing the context of the report, it should be reminded that 1986 was a crucial year for Syria and the region as well. 

1986 was a year that Hafez Al-Assad's government in Syria was once again suppressed through an international isolation and a year that various terrorist attacks took place domestically. 

The scenario, known as the Hindawi affair, which would result in the bombing of a plane by the Syrian intelligence, left Syria in a very difficult situation. Although it was claimed that this incident was a conspiracy organised by Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel) in order to put the Syria behind the eight ball, the arrow had already left the bow.

In March and April of the same year, five cities of Syria were shaken by bomb attacks, and more than 200 civilians lost their lives in the events.

The claim has been spoken over the years until today that at the end of 1985, the meeting of the Colonel Oliver North from the US National Security Council and Amiram Nir the counter-terrorism advisor of Shimon Peres, who was the prime minister of Israel at that period, triggered terrorist incidents in Syria.


The intelligence report considers the insurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood between the years 1979-1982 as a Sunni challenge.

By 1986, the CIA, which predicted that a second "Sunni challenge" is unlikely, says that "an excessive government reaction to minor outbreaks might trigger large-scale unrest."

The CIA reporting "in most instances the regime would have the resources to crush a Sunni opposition movement", believes that along with it, widespread violence may pave the way for a civil war by forcing the large numbers of Sunni officers in the army to flee or mutiny.

The report asserts that although the Sunnis carve out 60 percent of the armed forces, they are concentrated in junior ranks. From this point of view, the American intelligence believes that the Sunnis in the army will turn against the Syrian government in case of the resurrection of the violence between the Alevis and Sunnis in Syria.


In the CIA report, the Muslim Brotherhood is given an extensive role in a possible regime change.

Although the report considers a regime change under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as a long-term scenario, one of the three scenarios projected for the ouster of the ruling Ba'ath Party, is still the Muslim Brotherhood insurrection (the other two scenarios are the power struggles among the successors of Assad, and the possibility of sparking a coup d’etat by the military reverses).

The CIA, saying the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed opposition was drastically crushed in 1982, judges that there is still a potential for another Sunni opposition movement.

Indicating that the role of the Muslim Brotherhood between 1979-1982 was "to exploit and orchestrate opposition activity by other organised groups", the CIA reports that these groups still exist, and they might coalesce into an extensive movement under a proper leadership.

For the leadership of these groups and a new Sunni opposition movement, the CIA thinks young professionals who formed the militant faction of the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the Brotherhood.

In the report, it is stated that even though Assad has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, ‘‘Sunni opposition’’ fell into deep as small fractions, while the CIA claims that a sectarian conflict may begin, if the government mistakenly considers the small protests as a ‘‘resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood’’, and violently suppressed them.

The CIA argues that excessive use of force by the government to these small protests might be seen by the Sunnis as "an evidence of a government vendetta against all Sunnis".

Similar to the confidential CIA report suggested to make covert US operations and arms aid for the Sunni opposition through using Iraq as a base, it is determined that the Sunni opposition in Syria might be supplied by Iraq in a case of a possible civil war.


Although the report fundamentally focuses on the possibilities that can overthrow the Assad's administration, it also delivers an opinion about the question of which one of these scenarios best serves the US interests.

At the end of the preface of the report, it is admitted that one of the desired outcomes for the US is the Sunni regime in Syria.

According to the CIA, a Sunni regime controlled by business-oriented moderates is the form of government that would best serve the US interests.

The CIA’s report also claims that business moderates would see a strong need for Western aid and investment to build Syria’s private economy, and added that these factors would open the way for stronger ties to Western governments.


An interesting evaluation in the CIA report, as it can be seen in the contemporary Syria, is the possibility of a religious state that could seek to establish in a case of the ouster of Assad.

The CIA warns that "religious zealots might seek to establish an Islamic republic" if the Ba’ath state structure collapses. 

Syria President Assad's interview to French TF1 and EUROPE 1

We fight for the Syrian people, therefore, they support their government, army and President

16 Feb 2017

President Bashar al-Assad affirmed that victory in Aleppo is an important step in the way to defeat and to eliminate the terrorism from our country, adding “we don’t think that we can talk about winning the war unless we defeat the terrorists everywhere in Syria.”

The president added in an interview given to French TF1 TV and EUROPE 1 Radio that the west supported terrorists in Syria under the name of “moderate,” but it was supporting the same basis of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Journalist: President Bashar al-Assad, thank for accepting this encounter with TF1 and with Europe 1 here in Damascus. We’re going to speak about the future of Syria, about the war on terror, about the recent gains and support that you can count on, as well as the heavy accusations you’re still facing.

Journalist: Good morning, Mr. President, bonjour monsieur le président.

President Assad: Good morning.

Question 1: A simple question to start with: after the fall of Aleppo two months ago, can one say that you have won the war?

President Assad: No, we don’t think that we can talk about winning the war unless we defeat the terrorists everywhere in Syria. It’s just an important step in the way to defeat and to eliminate the terrorism from our country, but I think it’s going to be a long way for one reason, a simple reason; because they still have the support of many Western countries including France, including UK, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar in our region.

Question 2: You talk about a long way; can you summarize from a military point of view the objectives that you have still to reach?

President Assad: Definitely, when I talk about eliminating the terrorists from our country, it means to take over every inch of our country, to bring it back under the control of the government, and that’s the duty of any government; is to take control of every place.

Question 3: In which part of Syria particularly, which town?

President Assad: You mean next after Aleppo?

Journalist: Yes.

President Assad: Of course, now you have to, and we are, we continue our campaign in the area surrounding Aleppo, just to make Aleppo more immune against any other terrorist attacks from the western and northern part that’s been supported by Turkey directly, by the Turkish army.

Question 4: But the next step is Idleb? This is what people say; next big battle will be Idleb.

President Assad: Could be Idleb, could be Raqqa, could be anywhere. Now, it depends on the situation on daily basis, because you change your plans. So, we didn’t put that plan before finishing Aleppo as city and rural area. So, it’s still early to talk about which is next. That depends on the development of the battles in the different areas.

Question 5: But the situation is far better off now for you as it used to be, militarily speaking.

President Assad: Of course, every place you can liberate from the terrorists means the situation is better, but it’s not enough for us.

Question 6: Sir, for France, the main terrorist threat is Daesh, there’s no question about this. For you, all armed groups, or most of them, are terrorists. Why is Daesh not a specific threat for you?

President Assad: Let me answer you about two points: the first one, it’s not for us, when we say they are terrorists, not for us as government; it’s for the law, and for the international law. Whoever carries a machinegun in my country or in your country and starts killing people and destroying properties is a terrorist. This is an international concept, so it’s not for us. For us, whoever wants to give up his armament is not a terrorist anymore, according to the law. But if you talk about Daesh, I think when you say that the French people or the Europeans worry about Daesh, I think this is misunderstanding of the situation; Daesh is a product, it’s not the problem. The problem is the ideology of Daesh, which is the same for al-Nusra, the same for many other organizations, like-minded organizations in Syria, and maybe in Libya or any other country. So, you should be worried about those terrorists; they don’t care about being ISIS or al-Nusra, they implement what their ideology is telling them to do, mainly terrorist acts.

Question 7: So, there’s no difference between Daesh and the other groups?

President Assad: Definitely, in Syria the grassroots are the same; the same people who were in ISIS were before in al-Nusra, now they are moving from organization to organization, because it’s the same ideology: it’s Wahabi ideology, this is the source of this terrorism.

Question 8: This is the same enemy for you, all the terrorists are the same?

President Assad: Yeah, of course, according to the law, not for me. As I said, according to the law and the international law, no-one has the right to hold armaments except the army and the police in any country. I think the same in France, unless I’m wrong, you can tell me, but that’s what I think, everywhere in the world.

Question 9: So, Raqqa, which is the heartland of Daesh, where the terror attacks in France were prepared, Raqqa is not a priority target for you?

President Assad: No, again, they’re not necessarily prepared in Raqqa. Raqqa is a symbol of ISIS.

Journalist: It’s a symbol.

President Assad: You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere, you have them in Palmyra now, you have them in the eastern part of Syria, so no, it’s not about al-Raqqa; everywhere is a priority, depending on the development of the battle, but for us all the same: Raqqa, Palmyra, Idleb; all the same.

Question 10: Sir, you present yourself as the main shield against terrorism. There’s a lot of people, in the West in particular, would think that ISIS on the one hand and your regime on the other hand are the two sides, the two faces of a same evil trying to crush any form of democratic and free expression in this country. What would you answer to them? It’s a real question.

President Assad: First of all, we’re not a regime; we are a state, institutions. Second one, that’s the demonization of the Western mainstream media and political strata regarding Syria and the Syrian government and Syrian army, because they supported those “moderates” at the very beginning, and at the beginning they said they are “peaceful demonstrators,” then they said “they’re not peaceful, they are fighters but they are moderate,” but they couldn’t recognize that they were supporting the same grassroots of Al Qaeda and ISIS. That’s why they say that we are trying to promote those terrorists and to use them as alternative so the West cannot choose. First of all, the West doesn’t have to choose between me and ISIS: my people have to choose, because this is a Syrian issue, to be frank with you. So, we don’t care about what the Western officials think about this; they have to worry about their people and to protect their people from the terrorist attacks that’s been happening because of their policies.

Question 11: Sir, of course we are extremely shocked, particularly in France, by the horror of terrorism, but we are also horrified by a report from Amnesty International released a few days ago, last week. It’s about the prison of Sednaya. It’s not far from here, not far from Damas. 13,000 executed prisoners, massive hangings, torture. Amnesty speaks – I read the report – of a place where the Syrian state silently slaughters its own people, the Syrian state, your government. Mr. President, is everything permitted in order to win the war? Can you do everything that you want?

President Assad: No, everything legal. You cannot do anything…

Journalist: But according to Amnesty report, seems to be illegal.

President Assad: No. There’s difference between me and you talking about facts in this… in Syria, or talking about allegations. If you want to talk about allegations, we can spend the time talking about allegations, never-ending allegations. Anyone can say whatever he wants, and we can discuss it, but in that case, we’re not going to talk about facts. But if you want to talk about Amnesty, because Amnesty is known around the world, it’s shameful for such an organization to build a report on allegations. If you take any allegations to a court in your country, you have court, you have judicial system, could they take any decision regarding allegations, or they have to look for the evidence? This report is built on allegations, not a single shred of documents, not a single evidence. They didn’t say 13,000; they said between 5,000 and 13, which is double and half the number, it means it’s not precise. There’s no mentioning of names, of anyone who is from the victims; only 36 out of those thousands, and there are many flaws. They said, for example, the Grand Mufti is endorsing the execution. The religious figures in Syria has nothing to do with any judicial process. The execution in Syria is legal, it’s part of the law since the independence, so the government can execute anyone legally; why to do it illegally?

Journalist: You can tell us that there’s no torture in the prison of Sednaya as Amnesty said?

President Assad: The question is torture for what? I mean, if you want to say that we are committing torture, for what? What do I get? Why? Just for sadism? We are sadists? What is it for? I mean, to get information? We have all the information, so we don’t use it, it’s not our policy, because for a simple reason: if we commit such atrocities, it’s going to play into the hands of the terrorists, they’re going to win. It’s about winning the hearts of the Syrian people. If we committed such atrocities at any stage of this conflict, we wouldn’t have the support after six years. It’s a very simple fact. But again, if you go back to the reports, reports should be built on fact. There’s not a single fact in that report, and they have to prove it, they cannot.

Question 12: But Amnesty is suggesting to send international observers to the detention centers in Syria, to get some proof, or to prove that you’re right, and that there’s no crime being committed. What’s your answer to this proposal?

President Assad: I think we need an investigation on the Amnesty itself, when they adopt a report based on allegations. This is a shame, shame on such an organization that has never been impartial, it’s always biased.

Journalist: Testimonies of former guards and prisoners?

President Assad: It’s about the sovereignty. If you have allegations every day and reports every day, you can spend the time receiving delegations. Would you accept now, if you ask your government, to send a Syrian delegation to investigate why your army, through Sarkozy and later Hollande, attacked the Libyans and killed tens or hundreds of thousands? Can we go investigate the money that Sarkozy got from the Libyan leader? It’s a matter of sovereignty. No, we’re not going to allow Amnesty to be here, for any reason. I’m not talking about that report, but you have to – as mainstream media – investigate; that report is based on what? Just allegations? You don’t take it seriously.

Journalist: So, your answer is no to the visit of international observers.

President Assad: Definitely, no, no. We don’t care about such a childish report based on nothing, just allegations. And they said they interviewed a few witnesses who are opposition and defected, so it’s a biased report.

Question 13: But you acknowledge that there are some executions, numerous executions, official, legal executions in Syria, going on.

President Assad: Since the independence, you have it, since the independence. It’s part of the Syrian law, execution, if there’s a killing act, there is execution. So, it’s not about the crisis, not about that report, it’s not about that prison. You have legal ways to do it, and it’s a judicial way.

Question 14: Sir, let’s talk about relation between France and Syria. In a few weeks from now, a new president will be elected in France, and among the debates we have in our country there is the issue of resuming dialogue with your government. Do you hope for the renewal of diplomatic relations with France?

President Assad: It’s not about the diplomatic relations. First of all, it’s about the policy of France. So, if we don’t have this diplomatic relation, it’s not that big problem for the time being now. Maybe in the long-term, you need to have good relations with any country, including diplomatic relations.

Journalist: So, let’s talk about the policy of France.

President Assad: Exactly. The policy of France, that started from day one, to support the terrorists in Syria, and is responsible directly of the killings in our country.

Journalist: How can you say it… it’s a serious accusation against France. How can you say that France is supporting terrorism?

President Assad: They said, I didn’t accuse them. They said, many times, they supported the war, and Hollande recently said it was a mistake not to launch war in 2013. They said that they send armaments to whom they call “moderate” groups, which are terrorists. They said that, I didn’t say. The Americans said the same, the French said the same. So, your officials – go back to their statements during the last two, three, four years, maybe – you have more than one self-accusation by the French officials.

Question 15: Francois Hollande is about to leave the power in France. You’re still there. Did you win your struggle, your arm-wrestling with Francois Hollande?

President Assad: It’s not between me and him, it’s not something personal, I never met him, I don’t care about him, to be frank, and his popularity is 11 percent recently, which is rock-bottom, I think, for any president in the history of France. Actually, it’s between me and the terrorists, and between me and whoever supports the terrorists. Till this moment, the terrorists couldn’t win the war, but they’ve been destroying Syria, they killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, so I cannot say I won the war. They didn’t succeed in their plan, but till this moment we haven’t finished our war, so I cannot say that I won the war.

Question 16: Do you have any contacts… do you follow, first of all the French political campaign, the presidential campaign going on right now?

President Assad: We follow it in general, not in details, because we don’t bet on the Western elections for one reason, a simple reason; that we don’t take the Western officials at their word during the campaign, because they say something for the voters, not for the sake of the country, for the voters to go and vote. This is reality, I’m being frank with you.

Question 17: Sir, you see, even the difference between the right wing and the left wing in France considering relation with Syria, you see a difference?

President Assad: Yes, you can feel it, but at the end whoever becomes president, what’s his policy going to be? The same as we used to see it as rhetoric before the elections, or what? That’s the question. So, it’s not something you bet on. Of course, you prefer somebody who doesn’t take the position of warmonger, you prefer it, but you don’t know…

Journalist: For example, who do you think, who is the best one who doesn’t want war?

President Assad: We don’t see any big difference now, but again, I wouldn’t bet on their rhetoric. Regarding rhetoric, there’s no big difference.

Question 18: And do you have some contacts with some of the candidates? None of them?

President Assad: No, we don’t have any contacts with any of them.

Journalist: And with intelligence service?

President Assad: In some cases, we had some indirect contacts.

Journalist: With French intelligence service?

President Assad: Yes.

Journalist: You personally, you have contact with intelligence service?

President Assad: Actually, in one of the delegations that came to Syria, it was parliamentarian, one from the intelligence was part of the delegation. So, it’s involved. Of course, the French government said “they are parliamentary delegation, we’re not involved, we don’t agree,” which is not true. Of course, we have so many channels.

Question 19: A country already changed its president; that is the United States. One of the first contested decisions of Donald Trump is the Muslim ban. It intended to forbid citizens from some Muslim countries, including Syria, to travel to US. As a Syrian citizen, as president of Syria, do you feel some humiliation there?

President Assad: No, no, because it’s not against the Syrian people, first of all, it’s against the terrorists that could infiltrate some of the immigrants to the West, and that happened; happened in Europe, mainly in Germany, and it could happen in the United States. So, I think the aim of Trump is to prevent those people from coming, so he took it this way. Second…

Journalist: So, he’s in the right way, when he…

President Assad: No, no, I’m talking about something we can disagree or agree on as persons, but for me as president, I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m worried about how can I bring the Syrian people to Syria, not to send them to the United States. I wouldn’t feel happy if they could access other countries, I will feel happy when they can come back to Syria, because they want to come back to Syria, the majority of the Syrians left because of the terrorism and the embargo, the Western embargo. So, if I want to deal with that decision, I would ask Trump and the Western countries to lift the embargo and to stop supporting the terrorists. They wouldn’t have problem with this. They won’t have immigrants or terrorists infiltrating the immigrants. Second, this is another important point, all the fuss that we heard about Trump’s decisions is not because they are worried about the Syrians or about any other countries; it’s because they want to use our cause, our problem, our conflict, as the fuel for their conflict with Trump, because you have other decisions that have been taken by Obama few months ago regarding the same issue, the mainstream media in the United States didn’t talk about it; it only talked about Trump when he announced it publicly and he took it in a stark way.

Question 20: So, you feel more comfortable, you, with Donald Trump than with Mr. Barack Obama?

President Assad: No, I cannot feel comfortable unless I see his policy towards Syria; I haven’t seen it yet. So, again we have to be cautious with every Western leader because they can say something and do the opposite, and then they can say something… do something in the morning and do the opposite in the evening. They wouldn’t commit to anything; they are very pragmatic till they sell their values, they don’t have values in their policies.

Question 21: But at least there is one thing that didn’t change so far, is this sort of disengagement of the US from the region, this is pretty obvious. A second round of negotiations is starting now in Astana, in Kazakhstan, and it’s very striking; the Western countries are totally out of the game, they’re out of the picture. Is this really good for the future of the negotiations and the future of peace in the region?

President Assad: No, the more support you have for any political process, the better, but the Western countries that been involved in those processes, mainly France and UK, lost the chance of achieving anything in Geneva, twice; two rounds in Geneva and they couldn’t achieve anything because they supported those groups that represented the terrorists against the government. They didn’t want to achieve peace in Syria; they wanted to achieve their goals through the peace axis of the whole process.

Question 22: But the fact that the destiny of the Middle East is supervised right now by two countries, Iran and Russia, that by the way don’t have a fantastic democratic record of their own, is that a good thing?

President Assad: Again, the more involvement you have around the world, the better, and that’s not only our vision; that’s even the Russian vision, and the Russians invited many countries to come and help them in fighting terrorism and supporting this political process, but the Western countries isolated themselves, not Iran, not Russia. They were very passive in dealing with all these initiatives, like Astana; where are they? Did the Russians tell them not to come? No, they didn’t. They didn’t come.

Journalist: So, Iran and Russia are promoters of peace, and the Western countries of war?

President Assad: Exactly, a hundred percent, hundred percent.

Question 23: Let’s continue to talk about Russia. Would you say that Vladimir Putin is finally the real decision-maker in the region and even in your country, in Syria?

President Assad: No, no, he’s not. We are the decision-maker regarding Syria. Regarding other countries, I cannot talk on behalf of the others. They respect our sovereignty; every step they took, whether strategic step or tactical step, it was in cooperation with Syria. They never did take a single step without us. They base their politics on values and on their interests, especially regarding fighting terrorism. So, no, it’s our decision.

Question 24: But would you say that without Russia, your government would have collapsed a long time ago?

President Assad: This is a hypothetical question; nobody can tell you about the war because it’s in fluctuation. Of course, which is definite for everyone, that without the Russian support, it would have been worse. How much worse? I cannot tell you, no-one can tell you. Collapsed, withstood, I cannot tell you, but definitely, the Russian support was very crucial in order for ISIS and al-Nusra to re-shrink; because they were expanding after the American alliance started its attacks, cosmetic campaign in Syria, they were expanding till the Russians intervened, they started shrinking. This is reality. This is a fact.

Question 25: Are you stricken by the fact that a few years ago, most of the observers and analysts were saying that you wouldn’t last very long in power, and especially after Aleppo, now the possibility that you may stay is agreed by a large number of people. So, the question is, the question about you remaining in power, this is a question also in Astana in the negotiations. In our country, when a political man has a bad record, usually, usually he doesn’t stay in power very long time. After seventeen years in power, six years of war, three hundred thousand plus dead in this country, a destroyed and divided country, would you say from a moral perspective, not a legal one, a moral perspective, that this record allows you to remain in power, whatever the outcome of the negotiations might be?

President Assad: You know about that terrorists who committed the recent attacks in France last year, and then the police killed some of them, you know about that. What do you go to tell that policeman? Do you tell him you’re a killer or a savior? He killed. The same for a doctor who could take out a leg because there is gangrene in the leg. Would you tell him you committed atrocity, or you saved the life of the patient? So, it’s about the reason why you commit an act, this is first. And in our case, we were fighting the terrorists to protect the people. It’s not my point of view; it’s a duty according to the constitution and to the law. If I don’t do that, I would be the killer, because I will allow the terrorists to kill more Syrians in Syria, and that’s the duty of your army to protect the French, otherwise, they will say “no, we don’t do anything, because they call us a killer.”

Question 26: So, you would say eventually that you have done everything you could and you should for your country?

President Assad: What I could?Definitely. What I should? The Syrian people say, would say what I should have done, because we have different points of view. But regarding who’s going to say this is a bad record when you talk about the moral part of your question, it’s only related to the Syrian people, not the European officials to say this is bad record or good record. They were talking about “Assad must go,” now they don’t talk about “Assad must go.” I don’t care about either. I never cared about this, since the very beginning. I care about our war against the terrorism, about fighting their plans to destroy our country. That’s my worry since the beginning. That’s why it’s the same for me whatever they say. The record is a Syrian record, not a European record by any means.

Question 27: But when Syrian people can say if they approve or not your policy? We have election in France now, when is the next one in Syria?

President Assad: You have two means: the current means and the one that comes in the future at the end of the war. That time, you can talk about any means, whether you have ballot box, you have elections, you have anything. In the meantime, the people can have one means: either to support you or not. After six years of the war, if that president has bad record according to the Syrian people, why would they support him? A simple question: why do they have to support him? Why they didn’t they support the terrorists? And according to that question when you talk about three hundred thousand or four hundred thousand killed, and you talk about the president killing them, it’s like you’re giving the terrorists a certificate of good behavior because we are killing the people and they are protecting the people; Al Qaeda and al-Nusra and ISIS are protecting the people. So, this is the content of that question. Actually, no, we are fighting for the Syrian people. That’s why the Syrian people supported their government and their army and their president.

Journalist: Thank you Mr. President for receiving Europe 1 and TF1.

President Assad: Thank you very much for coming.

Full text of Pres Assad's interview to Yahoo News

10 Feb 2017

President Bashar al-Assad gave interview to Yahoo News in which he stressed that the US needs to be genuine regarding the fight against terrorism if its wants to really defeat terrorism in Syria, adding that this aim requires a clear political position on the part of the US towards the sovereignty and unity of Syria and cooperation with its government and people.

The following is the full text of the interview:

Question 1: 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?

President Assad: No, not yet.

Question 2: 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?

President Assad: I wouldn’t convey the message through the media, I would send it through a different channel, maybe diplomatic channels. 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.

Question 3: You said yesterday, I believe, that what you have heard from the new administration is promising. Explain what you meant.

President Assad: The position of President Trump since he started his 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 I meant by promising.

Question 4: 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?

President Assad: 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, Iran and Syria, of course.

Question 5: 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?

Americans’ only way to defeat terrorism in Syria is through cooperation with Syria’s government and people

President Assad: Could the American prowess defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan or in other places? No, you cannot… it’s not enough to have this Apache or F-16 or F-35, whatever you want to label it, to defeat terrorists. There has to be a 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 Syrian government. We are here, we are the Syrians, we own this country as Syrians, nobody else, nobody would understand it like us. So, you cannot defeat the terrorism without cooperation with the people and the government of any country.

Question 6: But you have welcomed Russian troops into your country. Would you welcome American troops into your country?

President Assad: 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 that wants to defeat and to fight with the terrorists. Of course, with no hesitation we can say that.

Question 7: So, you want American troops to come into Syria to help fight ISIS?

Sending troops is not enough for fighting terrorism, a genuine political position on respecting Syria’s sovereignty and unity is needed

President Assad: 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 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 those factors. This is where the Russians could come and succeed in fighting the terrorists in Syria.

Question 8: Do you see cooperation between the United States and Russia to attack ISIS in Syria?

Any cooperation in any conflict around the world needs rapprochement between the Russians and the Americans

President Assad: 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.

Question 9: Well, you talk to the Russians all the time, don’t you?

President Assad: Of course.

Question 10: Yeah? When’s the last time you spoke to President Putin.

President Assad: A few weeks ago.

Question 11: What’d you talk about?

President Assad: About the problem in Syria, about the advancement of the Syrian Army in Syria.

Question 12: Right. Are you going to try to broker some sort of arrangement between the United States and Russia in this fight?

President Assad: There’s direct contact between them, and President Putin had a telephone call with President Trump a week or so, and they talked about different issues including Syria, so they don’t need my role to do so, and we don’t have any contact with the Americans to help the Russians make contact or improve their relation. We’re not in that position.

Question 13: President Trump 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?

The idea of safe zones is not realistic….It’s much more viable, practical and less costly to have stability than to create safe zones

President Assad: But actually, it won’t. It won’t. Safe zones 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 a natural safe zone, 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 a realistic idea at all.

Question 14: 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?

President Assad: The first thing you have to ask: why were they displaced? If you don’t answer that question, you cannot answer the rest. They were displaced for two reasons: first of all, the terrorist acts and the support from the outside. Second, the embargo on Syria. Many people didn’t only leave Syria because of the security issues. As you see, Damascus is safe today, it’s nearly 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 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.

Question 15: There are, what, 4.8 million Syrian refugees since this crisis began. Just as way of comparison, that is more than 4 times the total number of Palestinian refugees from the events of 1947 and 48. Do you accept that this is a humanitarian disaster?

The refugee crisis was created due to Western, Turkish, Qatari and Saudi support to terrorists

President Assad: It is a humanitarian disaster created by the Western support of those terrorists, of course, and the regional support by Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It didn’t happen just like this.

Question 16: And you bear any responsibility at all for this disaster?

President Assad: As president?

Journalist: Yes.

President Assad: Regarding the policies that I undertake since the beginning of the crisis, they were supporting the dialogue between the Syrians, fighting terrorists, and supporting reconciliation, and they succeeded. So, no, regarding these policies, I think we were correct, and we are continuing on these pillars for the future of Syria regarding this crisis.

Question 17: 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.

President Assad: Yeah.

Journalist: Do you agree with President Trump on this?

US ban of refugee entry is an American responsibility as Syria’s President ti to restore stability to help Syrian refugees go back home

President Assad: This question has two aspects: the first one is American, this is an 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 or agree, but if you ask me as president, as official in the Syrian state, my responsibility is not to go and ask any president to allow the Syrians to go there and to have 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.

Question 18: But the question was: are some of these refugees, in your view, aligned with terrorists?

President Assad: Oh, definitely.

Journalist: Definitely?

President Assad: 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 machinegun or killing people, they are peaceful refugees in Europe or in the West in general. Yeah, that’s true.

Question 19: So, how many terrorists do you believe are among the 4.8 million Syrian refugees?

President Assad: No one has any number, nobody knows, because nobody knows all the terrorists to give a percentage, no one at all.

Question 20: Do you believe it’s a significant number?

President Assad: It’s not about significant, because you don’t need a 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 intentions.

Question 21: So, if what you’re saying is correct, then President Trump would be justified in keeping them out of the United States?

President Assad: I’m not American to justify it; only American people would say this is against the interests of the United States or with the interests. From the outside, we can discuss it as value; this is with the values 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’s the natural duty according to the constitution and to the law.

Question 22: Would you welcome all of Syria’s refugees back into your country?

President Assad: Definitely, definitely.

Journalist: Definitely? Even the terrorists?

President Assad: 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.

Question 23: But if you believe that some of them are terrorists, what would you do with them when they return to Syria?

President Assad: It doesn’t matter what I believe, what matters is what the law would say about every person who committed any act against his country, taking into consideration that we gave amnesty in Syria to thousands of people who committed actions or acts against their country as part of the reconciliation.

Question 24: How do you expect them to return? What is your vision or plan for bringing Syria’s refugees back into Syria?

President Assad: Already many of them, not a huge number, but many of them 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 there’s security and when there’s no embargo.

Question 25: 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?

Aleppo is an important step in the fight against terrorism, but the turning point was taking the decision to fight terrorism in spite of propaganda

President Assad: No, it’s not a turning point. The 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 every pressure. That was the turning point. Aleppo is an important step against terrorists, in the fight against terrorism, but I cannot say it is 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 it’s 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.

Question 26: 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 Sednaya prison, “human slaughterhouse” they call it, 5,000 to 13,000 detainees hanged in mass hangings there, horrific conditions, trials of blindfolded prisoners, one to three minutes in length, no lawyers, secret, all in secret. 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?

President Assad: 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 relations with Syria, regarding the human rights. I will ask you: how could you have this close, very close relation, intimate relation, with Saudi Arabia? Do you consider beheading as human right criteria?

Journalist: But I’m not interviewing the King of Saudi Arabia right, I’m interviewing you.

President Assad: Yeah, I know. Yeah, of course.

Journalist: I’m asking you about reports of human rights abuses in your prison, in your country.

The US is in no position to say “I don’t open relations [with Syria] because of human rights, as it has killed millions of civilians since Vietnam war till this moment

President Assad: You own the question, I own the answers, so that’s my answer. So, when you answer about Saudi Arabia and your relation, you can put yourself in 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 1.5 million in Iraq, without any 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 other part, 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 a shame for such an organization to publish a report without a shred of evidence. They said it’s based on interviews, on interviews.

Journalist: Yes.

President Assad: What about the documents? What about the concrete evidence? Not a single concrete…

Journalist: Interviews with four former prison officials and guards, three former Syrian judges, three doctors…

President Assad: It means nothing.

Journalist: It means nothing?

President Assad: It’s interview… no, no, when you need to make a report, you need 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.

Question 27: I wanna just read you something from the report… “the process of hanging 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 President Bashar al-Assad.”

President Assad: First of all, what’s the evidence? This is first. Second…

Journalist: Is it true or not?

President Assad: No, no, it’s not true, definitely not true.

Journalist: How do you know? Do you know what goes on in that prison? Have you been there?

President Assad: No, I haven’t been, I’ve been in the Presidential Palace, not in the prison.

Journalist: So here you have a very disturbing report about something going on in one of your prisons, are you going to investigate?

President Assad: So, Amnesty International knows more about Syria than me, according to you. No, that’s not true. No, they haven’t been to Syria, they only base their reports on allegation, 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 the reality, they said in their report that we made serial executions, is that correct?

Journalist: Yes. Mass hangings.

President Assad: First of all, execution is part of the Syrian law. If the Syrian government or institution wants to do it, they can make it legally, because it’s been there for decades.

Journalist: Secret trials, no lawyers?

President Assad: Why do they need it, if they can make it legally? They don’t need anything secret.

Journalist: Is that legal, in your country?

President Assad: Yeah, yeah, of course, it’s legal, for decades, since the independence. The execution, according to the law, after trial, is a legal action, like any other court in many countries in this region.

Question 28: Will you allow international monitors to visit that prison and inspect and investigate these reports?

President Assad: It depends on the credibility of that organization, not anyone, because they’re going to use this visit just to demonize the Syrian government more and more and more, like what’s happening.

Question 29: This is not the first time that very serious human rights allegations have been made. Just last week, a 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. 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.

President Assad: Who verified the pictures? Who verified that they’re not edited and photoshopped and so on?

Journalist: Have you seen the photos?

President Assad: No, I didn’t.

Journalist: Have you seen the photos?

President Assad: No, no, I saw some photos in previous reports. But it’s not about the photo. How can you verify the photo?

Journalist: You have said that the…

President Assad: Do you have a photo?

Journalist: I do have the photos.

President Assad: Can you show it to me?

Journalist: Yes, I’ll be happy to. here.

President Assad: This photo… have you verified who are those?

Journalist: I… can tell you…

President Assad: Because you have it, and because you mention it in front of your audience…

Journalist: There’s a number of photos…

President Assad: You have to convince your audiences, you cannot mention such a picture without verifying who are those and where and everything about, just to put it in front of the audience, tell them “they’ve been killed by the Syrian soldiers.”

Journalist: The woman who filed the lawsuit, the Syrian woman who filed the lawsuit said she saw her brother in those photographs.

President Assad: At the end, these are allegations. We have to talk about concrete evidence, at the end. That’s how you can base your judgment. Anyone can say whatever he wants.

Question 30: The US State Department gave these photos to the American FBI crime lab, digital lab. They examined these photos, and said the bodies and scenes depicted – these are 242 of these images – the bodies and scenes depicted exhibit no artifacts or inconsistencies that would indicate they have manipulated. As a result of the above observations, all of these 242 images appear to depict real people and events.

President Assad: Who said that?

Journalist: The FBI. Have you seen their report?

President Assad: No. When was that?

Journalist: That was 2015.

President Assad: The question is 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, if the FBI say 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 this? Could they tell you what this crime is, who committed it? If you don’t have this full picture, you cannot make judgement, 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.

Question 31: But let me just… If I hear what you’re saying, the FBI is just forwarding… propagating propaganda, Amnesty International is propagating propaganda, everybody is conspiring against the Syrian government. Why?

President Assad: Ask them, we’re not…

Journalist: You’re the one making the allegation.

President Assad: No, no, I’m not making an allegation, they supported the terrorists, and you go back to what they said… John Kerry, a 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 one of his speeches, that the war on 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 a conspiracy, these are facts, this is reality. We didn’t give money, we didn’t support these terrorists. Your country supported them, UK, France, publicly, and they said they sent armaments, we didn’t. So, 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 the extremists…

Journalist: That’s Saudi Arabia, but the United States…

President Assad: So, this allegation is their allegation, it’s American allegation before it’s been Syrian allegation.

Question 32: 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?

President Assad: Can you explain to me how could they defeat ISIS in Iraq, and ISIS was expanding since the American coalition started attacking in Syria?

Journalist: Is it expanding now?

President Assad: It’s been expanding, no, it’s…

Journalist: Is it expanding now?

ISIS started shrinking after Russian intervention not the American intervention

President Assad: It started shrinking after the Russian intervention, not the American one. How could they use our oil fields and export with thousands 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. destroy all their facilities? How? This is cosmetic campaign against ISIS.

Question 33: Just to be clear; I have shown you the FBI report, I have shown the photographs, I have shown you the Amnesty International report. Will you cooperate in investigations to determine if these very serious reports are in fact true?
President Assad: You showed me many things, but you didn’t show me a single evidence.

Journalist: I showed you an FBI report.

President Assad: No, no, it’s not evidence at all. It’s actually the contrary; any American institution for us during the Syrian crisis was against the reality, it was the opposite of the truth. That’s how we look at it. So, it’s not a 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, because we have many claims regarding not mass crimes, actually, more individual acts and we’ve been investigating many, and many people were punished, but that happened in every war.

Question 34: Do you… are you disturbed enough about any of this to try to determine the truth yourself?

President Assad: I think you should show it to Western officials 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 am Syrian.

Journalist: You are disturbed about this? About these reports?

President Assad: About what’s happening in Syria. No, no, not about the report. I don’t care about the report.

Journalist: Not about this.

President Assad: No, no, I’m disturbed about what’s happening in Syria. It’s my country, it’s being destroyed by proxy terrorists, of course.

Question 35: 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?

President Assad: No, I didn’t say that. I never said that. I said there are always mistakes in any action; that’s a human…

Journalist: How many mistakes are we talking about? How many innocent civilians have been killed by your government’s mistakes?

President Assad: Nobody knows, because thousands and thousands of those are missing people; nobody knows anything about their fate, nobody at all. So, you cannot tell till the end of this war.

Question 36: Was it a mistake to bomb hospitals in Aleppo?

President Assad: We never bombed hospitals in Aleppo. Why to bomb a hospital? Can you convince your audience that we have interest in bombing hospitals? Actually, this is against our interest. This is against our interest to bomb a hospital if it’s used as hospital, and the proof that it was a lie, every time they talk about bombing hospitals, every time they say this is the last hospital in eastern part of Aleppo, and the second time 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 the reality.

Question 37: Is it a mistake to use barrel bombs and chlorine gas?

President Assad: 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?

Question 38: Well, you do acknowledge though that innocent civilians… there have been civilian casualties in this war?

President Assad: Of course, every war is a bad war, every war is a bad war. You cannot talk about good war. Let’s agree about this. Every war has causalities; 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 casualties doesn’t mean not to defend our country against the terrorists and against the invasion from abroad through those proxies by foreign countries like the Western countries and the regional ones. This is self-evident.

Question 39: President Obama gave a speech in 2013 about US counter-terrorism efforts, including drone strikes, and he says while defending those strikes, nevertheless it is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties from 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 actions?

President Assad: That’s an important example about the armament, it’s not about what bomb do you use, whether you call it barrel or any other name; it’s not about that. It’s about the way you use and 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 drone, it’s not about the armaments; it’s about your intentions. In our case in Syria, of course we have to avoid the civilians, 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 in Syria? Against who and for who?

Question 40: 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.

President Assad: Exactly.

Journalist: Every mean?

President Assad: Every mean.

Journalist: Including torture?

President Assad: No, it’s not a defense; torture is not a defense. Why to use torture? What’s the relation between torture and defending your country?

Journalist: So, where you draw the line?

President Assad: You have rules, you have very clear rules like any army; when you want to defend your country, you 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 defend your country militarily, if I’m talking about military. Of course, you have to defend it politically, economically, in every sense of the word. But if you talk militarily, torture is not part of defending your country.

Question 41: 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?

President Assad: Definitely, for me, whenever the Syrian people don’t want me to be in that position, I will leave right away, this is a very simple answer for me and I don’t have to think about it, and I’m not worried about this. What I would worry about is 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 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 will include anything, everything, regarding the whole political system, the whole Syria in every sense of the word, then when we can get elections, and you can have national unity government, then you can have parliamentarian elections, then if the Syrian people think about early presidential elections or any kind of presidential elections, that will be viable.

Journalist: So, earlier than the completion of your term, which I believe, is in 2021?

President Assad: If there is public consensus about this.

Question 42: How would you determine whether there’s public consensus or not?

President Assad: 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, we never thought 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 a continent, it’s a small country, we can deal with each other, we can know each other as society. You can sense, you can feel if there is public consensus, and then if you want to do something documented, you can have referendum, that’s very clear.

Question 43: Do you have any cause for optimism?

President Assad: Of course, without that optimism we wouldn’t fight for six years. The only… the main optimism that we’ve had is that we’re going to defeat those terrorists and their masters, and we’re going to restore stability in Syria, and more important than my optimism is the 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 the minimum life, to survive, and for the government to offer different services and subsidies, and so on.

Journalist: Thank you Mr. President.

President Assad: Thank you very much.



Who supplies the news? Patrick Cockburn on misreporting in Syria and Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn - 1 Feb 2017

The nadir of Western media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Syria has been the reporting of the siege of East Aleppo, which began in earnest in July and ended in December, when Syrian government forces took control of the last rebel-held areas and more than 100,000 civilians were evacuated. During the bombardment, TV networks and many newspapers appeared to lose interest in whether any given report was true or false and instead competed with one another to publicise the most eye-catching atrocity story even when there was little evidence that it had taken place. NBC news reported that more than forty civilians had been burned alive by government troops, vaguely sourcing the story to ‘the Arab media’. Another widely publicised story – it made headlines everywhere from the Daily Express to the New York Times – was that twenty women had committed suicide on the same morning to avoid being raped by the arriving soldiers, the source in this case being a well-known insurgent, Abdullah Othman, in a one-sentence quote given to the Daily Beast.

The most credible of these atrocity stories was given worldwide coverage by Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the UN High Commission for Human Rights, who said on 13 December that his agency had received reliable reports that 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, had been killed by pro-government forces in several named locations in East Aleppo. The names of the dead were said to be known. Further inquiries by the UNHCHR in January raised the number of dead to 85, executed over a period of several days. Colville says the perpetrator was not the Syrian army, but two pro-government militia groups – al-Nujabah from Iraq and a Syrian Palestinian group called Liwa al-Quds – whose motives were ‘personal enmity and relatives against relatives’. Asked if there were other reports of civilians being executed in the final weeks of the siege, Colville said there were reports of members of the armed opposition shooting people trying to flee the rebel enclave. The murder of 85 civilians confirmed by multiple sources and the killing of an unknown number of people with bombs and shells were certainly atrocities. But it remains a gross exaggeration to compare the events in East Aleppo – as journalists and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic did in December – with the mass slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 or more than 7000 in Srebrenica in 1995.

All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter. But this is to let mainstream media off the hook: it’s hardly surprising that in a civil war each side will use whatever means are available to publicise and exaggerate the crimes of the other, while denying or concealing similar actions by their own forces. The real reason that reporting of the Syrian conflict has been so inadequate is that Western news organisations have almost entirely outsourced their coverage to the rebel side.

Since at least 2013 it has been too dangerous for journalists to visit rebel-held areas because of well-founded fears that they will be kidnapped and held to ransom or murdered, usually by decapitation. Journalists who took the risk paid a heavy price: James Foley was kidnapped in November 2012 and executed by Islamic State in August 2014. Steven Sotloff was kidnapped in Aleppo in August 2013 and beheaded soon after Foley. But there is tremendous public demand to know what is happening in such places, and news providers, almost without exception, have responded by delegating their reporting to local media and political activists, who now appear regularly on television screens across the world. In areas controlled by people so dangerous no foreign journalist dare set foot among them, it has never been plausible that unaffiliated local citizens would be allowed to report freely.

In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’: Abduction, Torture and Summary Killings under Armed Group Rule in Aleppo and Idlib. Ibrahim, whom al-Nusra fighters hung from the ceiling by his wrists while they beat him for holding a meeting to commemorate the 2011 uprising without their permission, is quoted as saying: ‘I heard and read about the government security forces’ torture techniques. I thought I would be safe from that now that I am living in an opposition-held area. I was wrong. I was subjected to the same torture techniques but at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra.’

The fact that groups linked to al-Qaida had a monopoly on the supply of news from East Aleppo doesn’t necessarily mean that the reports in the press about the devastating effects of shelling and bombing were untrue. Pictures of flattened buildings and civilians covered in cement dust weren’t fabricated. But they were selective. It’s worth recalling that – according to UN figures – there were between 8000 and 10,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo, yet almost none of the videos on TV ever showed any armed men. Western broadcasters commonly referred to the groups defending East Aleppo as ‘the opposition’ with no mention of al-Qaida or its associated groups. There was an implicit assumption that all the inhabitants of East Aleppo were firmly opposed to Assad and supported the insurgents, yet it’s striking that when offered a choice in mid-December only a third of evacuees– 36,000 – asked to be taken to rebel-held Idlib. The majority – 80,000 – elected to go to government-held territory in West Aleppo. This isn’t necessarily because they expected to be treated well by the government authorities – it’s just that they believed life under the rebels would be even more dangerous. In the Syrian civil war, the choice is often between bad and worse.

The partisan reporting of the siege of East Aleppo presented it as a battle between good and evil: The Lord of the Rings, with Assad and Putin as Saruman and Sauron. By essentially handing over control of the news agenda to local militants, news organisations unwittingly gave them an incentive to eliminate – through intimidation, abduction and killing – any independent journalist, Syrian or non-Syrian, who might contradict what they were saying. Foreign leaders and the international media were at one time predicting slaughter on the scale of the worst massacres in postwar history. But, shamefully, by the time the siege came to an end they had completely lost interest in the story and in whether the horrors they had been reporting actually took place. Even more seriously, by presenting the siege of East Aleppo as the great humanitarian tragedy of 2016, they diverted attention from an even greater tragedy that was taking shape three hundred miles to the east in northern Iraq.

The offensive against Mosul, the biggest city still held by Islamic State, began on 17 October when Iraqi army troops, with the support of US-led air power, entered the city’s eastern districts. Expectations of a quick victory were soon disappointed when Iraqi soldiers began to suffer heavy casualties as small but highly mobile IS units of half a dozen fighters moved from house to house through hidden tunnels or holes cut in the walls to set up sniper positions, plant booby traps and bury IEDs. Local people whose houses were taken over say that the snipers were Chechens or Afghans who talked in broken Arabic. These fighters were supported by local IS men who also helped hide the suicide bombers who were to drive vehicles packed with explosives. There were 632 vehicle bombs during the first six weeks of the offensive. An IS squad would use a house until it had been pinpointed by Iraqi government forces and was about to be destroyed by heavy weapons or US-led airstrikes. Before the counterattack came they would move on to another house. IS has traditionally favoured fluid tactics, with each squad or detachment acting independently and with limited top-down control. Adapted to an urban environment, this approach allows small groups of fighters to harass much larger forces, by swiftly retreating and then infiltrating captured neighbourhoods so they have to be retaken again and again.

The Iraqi and US governments had every reason to play down the fact that they had failed to take Mosul and had instead been sucked into the biggest battle fought in Iraq and Syria since the US invasion in 2003. It was only in the second week of January that Iraqi special forces reached the River Tigris after ferocious fighting: with the support of US planes, helicopters, artillery and intelligence they had finally taken control of Mosul University, which had served as an IS headquarters for the eastern part of the city, along with the area’s 450,000 inhabitants. But reaching the Tigris was far from being the end of the fight. On 13 January, IS blew up the five bridges spanning the river. The city’s western part is a much greater challenge: home to 750,000 people, many of whom are thought to be sympathetic to IS, it’s a larger, poorer and older area, with closely packed streets that are easy to defend. Only the aid agencies, coping with the heavy civilian casualties and the prospects of a fight to the death by IS, appreciated the scale of what was happening: on 11 January, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said the city was ‘witnessing one of the largest urban military operations since the Second World War’. She warned that the intensity of the fighting was such that 47 per cent of those treated for gunshot wounds were civilians, far more than in other sieges of which the UN had experience. The nearest parallel to what is happening in Mosul would be the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, in which 10,000 people were killed, or the siege of Grozny in 1994-95, in which an estimated 5500 civilians died. But the loss of life in Mosul could be much heavier than in either of those cities because it is defended by a movement which will not negotiate or surrender and kills anybody who shows any sign of wavering. IS believes death in battle is the supreme expression of Islamic faith, which fits in well with a doomed last stand.

Figures for wounded civilians in Mosul over the last three months may well exceed those for East Aleppo over the same period. This is partly because ten times as many people have been caught up in the fighting in Mosul, whose population according to the UN is 1.2 million; 116,000 civilians were evacuated from East Aleppo. Of that number, 2126 sick and war-wounded were evacuated to hospitals, according to the WHO. Casualties in the Mosul campaign are difficult to establish, partly because the Iraqi government and the US have been at pains to avoid giving figures. Officials in Baghdad angrily denounced the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq when it announced that 1959 Iraqi soldiers, police, Kurdish Peshmerga and their paramilitary allies had been killed in November alone. The UN was forced to agree not to release information about Iraq’s military casualties in future, but US officers confirmed that some units in the 10,000-strong Golden Division – a US-trained elite force within the Iraqi army whose soldiers get higher pay – had suffered 50 per cent casualties by the end of the year. The Iraqi government was equally silent about the number of civilian casualties and emphasised its own great restraint in the use of artillery and airpower. But the doctors in Iraqi Kurdistan treating injured people fleeing from Mosul were less reticent: they complained that they were being overwhelmed. On 30 December, the Kurdish health minister, Rekawt Hama Rasheed, said his hospitals had received 13,500 injured Iraqi troops and civilians and were running out of medicines. The extent of civilian losses hasn’t ebbed since: the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq said that over two weeks at the turn of the year, some 1500 Iraqis from Mosul suffering from trauma injuries had reached Kurdish hospitals, mostly from frontline areas and ‘with most of these injuries occurring just after the fighting intensified at the end of December’. These numbers only give a rough idea of the real losses: they don’t include the dead, or the wounded in western Mosul who didn’t want to leave – or couldn’t, because they were being used as human shields by IS. The UN says that many people were shot by IS fighters as they tried to escape.

A large number of these losses were inflicted even before Mosul was fully surrounded: the last passable main road to Syria, down which have come food, medicine, fuel and cooking gas since IS captured the city two and a half years ago, was closed in November by Shia paramilitaries. Tracks are still open, but they are dangerous and often can’t be used during the winter rains. As a result, prices in the markets in Mosul have soared: the cost of a single egg has jumped five times, to 1000 Iraqi dinars. In the main vegetable and fruit market there are only potatoes and onions for sale, and at high prices. As cylinders of cooking gas run out, wood taken from abandoned building sites is selling at a premium. The siege is likely to be a long one: if IS is going to make a stand anywhere, it is better from its point of view to do so in Mosul, where the Iraqi government and the US military may be more restrained than elsewhere in Iraq in the use of their firepower. The precedents are ominous: in 2015-16 airstrikes and artillery fire destroyed 70 per cent of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which had a population of 350,000. IS has every reason to fight to the end in Mosul: aside from being the second biggest city in Iraq, it has iconic significance for IS. It was here, in June 2014, that a few thousand of its fighters defeated an Iraqi government garrison of at least 20,000 soldiers; and it was on the back of this miraculous victory that IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his caliphate. Those who are trapped in Mosul aren’t optimistic about their chances: ‘What we feared is happening,’ a woman in her sixties who gave her name as Fatima, told the online newsletter Niqash, which published an account of conditions in the city. ‘The siege is starting for real. From now on every seed and every drop of fuel counts because only god knows when this will end.’

Despite the ferocity of the fighting in Mosul, and warnings from the UN about casualties in the city potentially surpassing those in Sarajevo and Grozny, international attention has been almost exclusively directed at East Aleppo. It wouldn’t be the first time in the region that the Western press corps turned out to have been watching the wrong battle: I was in Baghdad in November 2004 when most Western journalists were covering the end of the siege of Fallujah. The Marines ultimately captured it, but the American generals understandably played down – and the media scarcely noticed – that while US troops were fighting in Fallujah, in central Iraq, insurgents had seized the much larger city of Mosul, in the north. That victory turned out to be significant, because the US army and the Iraqi government never truly regained uncontested control of the city, with the result that the predecessors of IS survived intense military pressure and re-established themselves, waiting until the revolt in Syria in 2011 gave them fresh opportunities.

There are many similarities between the sieges of Mosul and East Aleppo, but they were reported very differently. When civilians are killed or their houses destroyed during the US-led bombardment of Mosul, it is Islamic State that is said to be responsible for their deaths: they were being deployed as human shields. When Russia or Syria targets buildings in East Aleppo, Russia or Syria is blamed: the rebels have nothing to do with it. Heartrending images from East Aleppo showing dead, wounded and shellshocked children were broadcast around the world. But when, on 12 January, a video was posted online showing people searching for bodies in the ruins of a building in Mosul that appeared to have been destroyed by a US-led coalition airstrike, no Western television station carried the pictures. ‘We have got out 14 bodies so far,’ a haggard-looking man facing the camera says, ‘and there are still nine under the rubble.’

by Patrick Cockburn - 1 Feb 2017