Politics & Policy

Charlie Rose Talks to Bashar al-Assad


Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was here in Damascus on May 22. Is something happening in the relationship between Syria and the U.S.?

The main interest of this Administration and of Senator Kerry is how can we re-launch the peace process.

It is said he came here as an emissary of President Obama. What is possible with respect to relations with America?

If [America] wants to play the role of the arbiter, it cannot play that role while it is siding with the Israelis. It has to be an impartial arbiter. It has to gain the trust of the different players. If you don't have good relations with Syria, how can Syria depend on you as an arbiter?

Has Senator Kerry convinced you that Syria is a high priority for this Administration?

I trust Senator Kerry, and I think he's genuine. But in the end, you have the Administration and you have the Congress; anyone could put up obstacles. I'm convinced President Obama wants to do something positive. I'm not confident [Congress] will allow him to do what he wants.

There are those in America who would like there to be some distance between Syria and Iran.

They contradict themselves. They talk about stability in the region. Stability starts with good relations. Iran supported our efforts to get back our land in 2008 when we had indirect peace negotiations [with Israel] in Turkey.

Let me underline that. Even though Iran says that it does not recognize Israel's right to exist, it was supportive when you were trying to negotiate with Israel?

Exactly.

Does America misunderstand Iran?

They misunderstand the region. And that's normal because it's a different culture. But after September 11, they should learn what's happening beyond the ocean. It's not about what you think. It's about what we think.

What doesn't the U.S. understand?

They don't understand that we want peace. But that doesn't mean we sign a capitulation agreement.

Washington believes that Syria has supplied scud missiles to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

This is very good story by the Israelis. We told them, what evidence do you have? You are scanning the border between Syria and Lebanon 24 hours a day and you cannot catch a big missile—scud or any other? This is not realistic.

Some find it interesting that your allies are Islamist, yet Syria is a secular state.

This is one of the things that they don't understand in the West. If I support you, that doesn't mean I'm like you or I agree with you. That means I believe in your cause. There's a difference. We support the Palestinian cause, and Hamas is working for that cause. Hezbollah is working for the Lebanese cause, so we support that cause, not Hezbollah.

Do you believe Israel wants peace?

I think people who elect such an extremist government don't want peace. But that doesn't mean we have to stop working for peace.

So what is your big challenge today?

The biggest challenge is how can we keep our society as secular as it is today. We are proud of our rich diversity in Syria. But in the end, we are part of this region. You cannot stay unrelated to the conflicts surrounding you. Even if you have sectarian Lebanon to the west and sectarian Iraq to the east, if you don't have the peace process solved on our southern border and you have the terrorists dominating the region, you will be affected some day. You will pay the price.

Some people find a cause in religion.

They always assume the mantle of religion or Islam or whatever in order to have followers. But it's about how much can they influence the society. As long as we have open-minded people, [the extremists] are going to be isolated.

If you could convince all of them—Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran—to recognize the right of Israel to exist and have relationships with its government, would you do it?

If we have peace and we are sure that we are going to have our land back and we are sure that Israel will live normally like any other country in this region and not commit any crimes or aggression, of course.

Watch Charlie Rose on Bloomberg TV weeknights at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Emmy Award-winning journalist Charlie Rose is the host of Charlie Rose, the nightly PBS program.

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