In an interview with China’s Phoenix TV transcribed by Syria’s SANA News, President Bashar Assad complained about foreign “invaders” operating on Syrian soil without his permission and said that while he hopes for cooperation with the new U.S. administration, he has not communicated with President Donald Trump yet.
Assad maintained his long-standing position that most opposition groups are “terrorists” without legitimacy. He suggested that peace talks will not be productive until terrorists, people with “good intentions” who do not really represent anyone, and proxies for foreign powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States are removed from the process.
The Syrian dictator put forth an offer to “terrorists” who might be able to shed that designation by showing proper respect to his regime: “Even those people who are terrorists or belonging to the terrorists or to other countries, they may change their mind and go back to their normality by going back to being real Syrians, detach themselves from being terrorists or agents to other groups.”
Peace talks in Geneva and Astana have been floundering because they cannot get past arguments over who should be sitting at the table. On Monday, several rebel groups announced they would not send representatives to the next round of talks in Kazakhstan due to what one spokesman described as “unfulfilled pledges related to the cessation of hostilities” – in other words, the Syrian government keeps bombing them while a “cease-fire” is supposedly in effect.
The latest round of talks in Geneva became mired in procedural issues and hindered by the absence of American leadership. Russia, Syria, and Iran muscled the U.S. into an observer-only role after the collapse of President Obama’s Syria policy, symbolized by the fall of the rebel stronghold in Aleppo, and President Trump has yet to declare a new policy or seek a more prominent role at the talks.
The Washington Post speculates that all parties are waiting to find out where the new U.S. administration will come down on the Syria question, with both sides finding encouragement in what the Post describes as “President Trump’s often contradictory statements on the Middle East.”
A more optimistic observer of Trump’s strategy might wonder if he is deliberately allowing the Russia-dominated talks to curdle without American involvement, so an American presence is more welcomed and respected when the new administration steps back in. Also, one can hardly blame anyone in the Trump administration for being reluctant to wade back into the Syrian quagmire.
Indeed, the Washington Post notes that “the opposition delegation has sought to be on its best behavior” and promised to refrain from walkouts precisely because it wants to “show Mr. Trump we are serious about a relationship, about a political solution and about limiting the role of Iran,” as a member of the delegation put it. It sounds as if a little strategic ambiguity was exactly what the situation needed.
Of course, that won’t last. In his interview with Phoenix TV, Assad cited Trump’s comments about prioritizing the destruction of the Islamic State and expressed eagerness to participate in that program:
I said since the beginning that this is a promising approach to what’s happening in Syria and in Iraq, because we live in the same area and we face the same enemy. We haven’t seen anything concrete yet regarding this rhetoric, because we’ve been seeing now certain is a local kind of raids. You cannot deal with terrorism on local basis; it should be comprehensive, it cannot be partial or temporary. It cannot be from the air, it should be in cooperation with the troops on the ground, that’s why the Russians succeeded, since they supported the Syrian Army in pushing ISIS to shrink, not to expand as it used to be before that.
So, we have hopes that this taking into consideration that talking about ISIS doesn’t mean talking about the whole terrorism; ISIS is one of the products, al-Nusra is another product, you have so many groups in Syria, they are not ISIS, but they are Al Qaeda, they have the same background of the Wahabi extremist ideology.
As in other interviews over the past few years, Assad stressed the Russian-Syrian view that fighting “terrorists” in concert with the Syrian government should be the goal of the Western world, and reluctance to accept this reality has unnecessarily prolonged the Syrian civil war. He is right about the extent of al-Qaeda influence in Syria; some of the most effective fighting forces in the rebellion are either elements of al-Qaeda or allied with it. If the West joined forces with Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to stamp out Sunni Wahabbist extremism in Syria, there would not be much of a rebellion left. Assad is serenely confident of his ability to win any “referendum” put before the “Syrian people,” as he said once again in this latest interview.
Assad even lashed out at the White Helmets, a celebrated group of volunteer rescue workers in Syrian war zones who were lauded in an Academy Award-winning documentary film on Netflix. Assad denounced the film as propaganda and congratulated al-Qaeda for winning an Oscar.
“This is unbelievable, and this is another proof that the Oscars, Nobel, all these things are politicized certificates, that’s how I can look at it,” he sneered. “The White Helmets story is very simple; it is a facelift of al-Nusra Front in Syria, just to change their ugly face into a more humanitarian face, that’s it. And you have many videos on the net and of course images broadcasted by the White Helmets that condemn the White Helmets as a terrorist group, where you can see the same person wearing the white helmet and celebrating over the dead bodies of Syrian soldiers.”
When the Chinese interviewer asked Assad if he had any “personal contact with the President of the United States,” he replied, “not at all.” He made vague mention of “indirect channels” but said they were no substitute for formal communication.
Assad had nothing good to say about U.S. and Turkish forces operating in Syria. He said Turkey “has been supporting ISIS until this moment,” and working with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front “because Erdogan, the Turkish president, is Muslim Brotherhood.”
Assad then accused the United States of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s indulgence of ISIS under the Obama administration and praised Russia as the only foreign power willing to take the threat of the Islamic State seriously.
“I think the Russians have hope that the two parties join the Russians and the Syrians in their fight against terrorism,” said Assad, referring to the U.S. and Turkey. “So, we have more hopes now regarding the American party because of the new administration, while in Turkey nothing has changed in that regard. ISIS in the north have only one route of supply, it’s through Turkey, and they’re still alive and they’re still active and they’re still resisting different kinds of waves of attacks, because of the Turkish support.”
The Syrian dictator was strongly critical of U.S. troop deployments near Manbij, stating that his government did not invite American forces. “Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation or consultation or permission, they are invaders, whether they are American, Turkish, or any other one,” he said.
“What are they going to do? To fight ISIS? The Americans lost nearly every war. They lost in Iraq, they had to withdraw at the end. Even in Somalia, let alone Vietnam in the past and Afghanistan, your neighboring country. They didn’t succeed anywhere they sent troops, they only create a mess; they are very good in creating problems and destroying, but they are very bad in finding solutions,” Assad complained, apparently forgetting his previously stated goal of sweet-talking the Trump administration into working with Damascus against all the “terrorists” opposing his rule.
He praised China and Russia for blocking U.N. human rights sanctions against Syria and eagerly anticipated Chinese investment in Syrian reconstruction. He said China also has a terrorist-fighting interest in his country due to extremist Muslim Uighurs from China flowing into Syria through Turkey, which he once again lambasted for its poor border security. Assad went so far as accusing Turkey of deliberately organizing the Uighurs, who were “gathered and collected in one group” and sending them into Syria to wreak havoc.
The Chinese interview wrapped up with a soft-focus praise for Assad as a “loving husband and father of three,” as the interviewer called him.
“If you cannot succeed in your small duty which is your family, you cannot succeed in your bigger duty or more comprehensive duty at the level of a country,” said Assad. He made a point of praising his son Kareem for trying to learn Chinese, because “China is a rising power” and has proved “it’s a real friend, a friend that you can rely on.”