Welcome to a BBC News Special. I am Jeremy Bowen. I am in Damascus, in the Presidential Palace, the complex which overlooks Damascus city; and here we have been interviewing the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Question 1: Mr. President, you’ve lost control of large areas of Syria. The jihadist group that calls itself Islamic State has emerged. There are perhaps 200,000 Syrians dead, millions have lost their homes. The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has called this the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world since the Second World War. Has Syria become a failed state?
President Assad: No, as long as the government and the state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people, we cannot talk about failed states. Talking about losing control is something completely different. It’s like if you have an invasion of terrorists coming from abroad, and the government is doing its job in fighting and defending its country.
Question 2: Can we briefly go back to when all this started in 2011? You said that there were mistakes made in the handling of those early demonstrations. Did you make mistakes yourself?
President Assad: No, I never said we made mistakes in handling this. I always say that anyone could make mistakes, but there’s a difference between-
Question 3: Did you make mistakes?
President Assad: There is a difference between talking, or asking your question, about policies and about practice. There’s a big difference. If we go back to polices, we took the decision to fight terrorism from the very beginning, we took the decision to make dialogue on the national level, and I think those policies are correct. While, if you want to talk about mistakes in practice and that some mistakes were committed towards some civilians, that happened from time to time, and some people were punished for these mistakes.
Question 4: But you didn’t make mistakes personally in the handling of the crisis?
President Assad: I said every person makes mistakes every day, otherwise if you deny the mistakes; you deny the human nature of the people.
Question 5: You talked about the influence of terrorism, as you called it, from the very beginning, but I was able as a reporter to go to some of those early demonstrations inside Damascus, in areas outside as well, and people there were not saying they wanted an Islamic caliphate. They were saying they wanted freedom, democracy, not the kind of vision that IS have now for the country. Do you think you’ve got it wrong?
President Assad: You in the West called it, at that time, and some still talk about that period as “peaceful-demonstration period” and I will tell you that during the first few weeks, many policemen were killed, shot dead. I don’t think they were shot dead and killed by the sound waves of the demonstrators. So, it was just a fantasy to talk about this. We have to talk about facts. From the very beginning, the demonstrations weren’t peaceful. Some who joined those demonstrations, they wanted democracy, that’s true, but that’s not the general case. This is first. Second, you’re talking about 140 – the highest number of demonstrations in one day, all over Syria – 140,000. Let’s make it one million, let’s say I’m minimizing the number. I’m not, but let’s say that. Make them one million. One million from 24 million Syrians is nothing.
Question 6: Now, in 2012, I spoke – I was in Duma which is a suburb of Damascus, as you know, which has been held by armed groups, armed rebel groups – and I spoke to a man there who said he defected from the Syrian Army and this is a quote, he said “I’ve escaped because I can’t see my people, my Syrian family, being killed by our hands,” and he meant the hands of the Syrian Armed Forces. Do you think that some of the activities of the Syrian Army helped create the nightmare that Syria is in right now?
President Assad: If you’re talking about the conflict taking the military shape, any war is a bad war, and in any war you have civilian casualties. That’s why every war is a bad war. So, you cannot talk about a benign war without casualties. It could have happened, but it was not policy. When you talk about governments, you talk about policy. What decisions we make on a political level? As I said; fighting terrorism, defending civilians, we are defending civilians, and making dialogue. And if we were the one who killed our people, as they said, how could we withstand four years while the people are against us, supposedly, and the West, and the regional countries, and I spent four years in my position with the government, with the army, with the institutions, without public support? That’s impossible. That’s mentally unpalatable.
Question 7: When you talk about terrorism versus what you represent, I mean, you know the accusation that has been made, that you have concentrated your forces in recent years against the non-jihadist parts of the armed resistance, the armed opposition to you, and that you have tried to give the Syrians, essentially, a false choice between you and between the likes of Al Qaeda and Islamic State, by trying to eliminate the middle ground. Perhaps it’s worked well as a political tactic, hasn’t it? Was that your idea?
President Assad: Anyway, Obama answered your question when he said a few months ago that waiting for, or depending on, what they called- the so-called moderate opposition, was a fantasy. It was but a dream. This is reality. So if I want to-
Question 8: They’re still trying to build up what they call this moderate opposition, aren’t’ they? But this time to fight against the Islamic State.
President Assad: But they said it’s a fantasy, he said it’s a fantasy, we all know it’s a fantasy. Even in the Western media outlets, they are talking about the ISIS, and al-Nusra, and Al Qaeda affiliates, organizations and groups prevailing. It doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s illogical, unrealistic to suddenly shift from moderate to extremist. They have the same grassroots.
Question 9: I’ve met some of those fighters, and they’ve said to me explicitly “we are not extremists, we are not Al Qaeda, we are not ISIS.” They’ve said “if Islamic State came here, they’d kill us.” I met one group last year, actually in Damascus, who said “we’d like a country a bit more like Malaysia or Turkey.” I mean, that is not jihadist, that is not dangerous, is it?
President Assad: So, why did the so-called moderate opposition evaporate? That is the question. If you have answered-
Question 10: Some say that’s because you’ve attacked them. Because you’ve killed them.
President Assad: Why didn’t we attack the extremists, like ISIS?
Question 11: That’s my question. Have you attacked them in the same force?
President Assad: You can say that the government and the President are shooting themselves in the foot. We ask the ISIS and al-Nusra to attack our military bases, to kill our soldiers, to kidnap our supporters, in order to eliminate the moderate opposition. Is that realistic? Nobody can accept it.
Question 12: I’ve spent time on the frontline with soldiers from the Syrian Army who insisted that they were patriotic, that they were patriots, they weren’t cold-blooded killers, but I’ve also interviewed people, and so have many other journalists and human rights people and so on, who say that they have suffered badly at the hands of Syrian soldiers. They can’t all have been lying, surely.
President Assad: How, how surely? Why are you sure?
Question 13: Well, because the weighted testimony, Human Rights Watch for example, 30th of January this year, has said that forces loyal to Bashar Assad, “have deliberately and viciously attacked civilians in opposition-held areas using indiscriminate weapons, notoriously barrel bombs.”
President Assad: This is a childish story they keep repeating in the West.
Question 14: It’s childish?
President Assad: Childish. Why? Again, if somebody who’s against his people, and against the regional powers, and the great powers, and the West, and survives, how? If you kill the Syrian people, do they support you, or do they become against you? As long as you have the public support, it means that you are defending the people. If you kill the people, they will be against you. That’s common logic, common sense.
Question 15: What about barrel bombs? You don’t deny that your forces use them?
President Assad: I know about the army. They use bullets, missiles, and bombs. I haven’t heard of an army using barrels or maybe cooking pots.
Question 16: Large barrels full of explosives and projectiles which are dropped from helicopters, and explode with devastating effect. There’s been a lot of testimony about this thing.
President Assad: They are called bombs. We have bombs, missiles, and bullets.
Question 17: But you wouldn’t deny that, included under the category of bombs, are these barrel bombs, which are indiscriminate weapons?
President Assad: No, there are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot, you aim, and when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians. Again, if you’re talking about casualties, that’s war. You cannot have war without casualties.
Question 18: There are always casualties in war, and civilians die as well, but it is the responsibility under international humanitarian law for belligerents from both sides to do everything they can to protect civilians, and the accusation against the Syrian Army is that by using barrel bombs, indiscriminate weapons – and Staffan de Mistura, again, the UN envoy, he’s talked about the constant fear of barrel bombs – means that you are not respecting humanitarian law by protecting your own people. What do you say to that?
President Assad: First of all, we’ve been attacked in Damascus and in Aleppo, we’ve been attacked by rebels, not vice versa. They’ve been attacking the Syrians with mortars, so you have to retaliate and defend your people. That’s self-evident. Second, again, you are talking about somebody, the government, who is killing its people, and the people supporting the government. This is contradiction. There’s no logic. But answer, how can you have support and kill people at the same time?
Question 19: Of course you have many supporters among part of the Syrian population, but in areas held by the rebels, the accusation is your people have used indiscriminate weapons which they may well have attacked places where there are armed rebels, but because there are civilians there, civilians have also died, and if you used less indiscriminate weapons, like barrels bombs, then this kind of thing would not be happening.
President Assad: During the war, you can have any kind of incrimination, any kind of allegations, every party could blame the others, but you have to talk about the reality. The families of those fighters, they came to the government in order to have refuge, not vice versa. You can go now and see where they live and who takes care of them. If we would kill civilians, civilians should have fled to the other side, not come to us.
Question 20: Now, if you stopped barrel bombing, and it does happen, would you not help your own case internationally? There are people now who are saying that you are a potential partner in the fight against the Islamic State and that you could be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and it would be quite an easy thing, wouldn’t it, simply to order your generals, to say “look, no more of these attacks,” and that would be… that would no doubt would improve your international standing, would it not?
President Assad: So, the first part of your question is about asking us to stop fulfilling our duty to defend our people against the terrorists?
Question 21: So, that’s legitimate use of force?
President Assad: Of course.
Question 22: Including barrel bombs?
President Assad: There are no barrel bombs.
Question 23: You don’t have barrel bombs at all?
President Assad: We don’t have barrels. Again, it’s like talking about cooking pots. So, we don’t have cooking pots. We only have, like any regular army, we have bombs, we have missiles, we have bullets, and etcetera.
Question 24: You’ve given up your chemical weapons arsenal, but as you know that this last week, the international organization which disposed of the weapons, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, condemned the use of chlorine gas here in Syria, saying with a high degree of confidence it was used last summer, not blaming any side, but saying that at the same time as these attacks, 32 out of 37 people interviewed said they heard or seen helicopters near the village. Now, the armed groups, the rebels, don’t have helicopters. Your side has helicopters. Have they been using chlorine gas to attack?
President Assad: Chlorine gas exists in any factory, in any house in Syria, in anywhere in the world. It’s not a military material.
Question 25: It can be militarized.
President Assad: Anything can be militarized. This is first-
Question 26: Is chlorine gas being militarized?
President Assad: Second, if you want to use gas as a WMD, you have to talk about thousands or maybe tens of thousands of victims in a few hours. That didn’t happen in Syria. Third, we could with our ordinary armaments-
Question 27: It did happen, last summer, in August of the previous year, 2013, of course.
President Assad: Who verified who threw that gas on who? Who verified the numbers?
Question 28: Your side didn’t do that attack?
President Assad: No. definitely not. We were close to the degree that we could affect ourselves. Second, the number of the victims wasn’t as they exaggerated in the media. So it’s not a WMD, it’s not about gas, it’s something… we don’t know what it is, because we didn’t exist in that region.
Question 29: So you’re not using chlorine gas?
President Assad: No, definitely not.
Question 30: On the fight against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the U.S. and others have said you cannot be a partner in that fight. Would you like to be a partner, would you like to join-
President Assad: Partner with who?
Question 31: Partner with the countries that are attacking Islamic State at the moment.
President Assad: Do you mean the alliance?
Question 32: The Jordanians-
President Assad: No, definitely, we cannot, and we don’t have the will, and we don’t want, for one simple reason; because we cannot be in an alliance with a country who supports terrorism.
Question 33: Which country?
President Assad: Because you are fighting terrorism. Those countries who make up the alliance, mainly most of them, support terrorism.
Question 34: You’ve been very harsh in your criticism of the Saudis. Now, the Saudis say they are against Islamic State. They are frightened of Islamic State because Islamic State do not want a royal family in Saudi Arabia, so isn’t it logical that they want them out? Why would they support them?
President Assad: First of all, the source of this Islamic State ideology and other Al Qaeda-affiliated groups is the Wahabis that are being supported by the royal family in Saudi Arabia. So, just to say that we do and we don’t, this doesn’t matter; it’s what you do, what is the action you are taking in order to prove that what you are saying is correct.
Question 35: So, you are saying then that the Saudis bear a high degree of responsibility for the emergence of these ideologies and of these armed groups.
President Assad: Definitely, there’s no question
Question 36: So, why have they rounded up and imprisoned so many Al Qaeda sympathizers inside Saudi Arabia itself?
President Assad: I think what they think is that once it’s going to be their turn, because the society in that kingdom is more inclined to be ISIS and to accept such ideologies as the Islamic State, that’s why.
Question 37: Let’s talk about American attitudes. Your departure from office is still official American policy, but there are signs that they are softening. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that instead of saying… he said that you should change your policies, that it’s time for President Assad to put the people first, think about the consequences. So, is that a lifeline that he’s offering? Is he softening in his attitude? Do you believe that you are now being seen as part of the solution?
President Assad: First of all, we don’t breathe through the Americans, we only breathe through our citizens. That’s how we breathe. This is first. So, it’s not a lifeline for us. Second, it depends on what he means by changing… what has he said? What’s the word?
Question 38: Put the people first, think about the consequences of their actions. This is seen as a softening because in the past, they’ve said “first of all, Assad must go.”
President Assad: So, second, it depends on what Kerry meant by his statement, or any other official. It’s not about him as a person. Whatever they say, doesn’t mean for us to be puppets. Whatever they say, for us it’s about being independent, to work for our interest, to work for the common interest of others, but we’ll never be puppets who work against our interests for their interests. So you have to ask them what they meant by that statement.
Question 39: But you must… surely… Syria has been very isolated. You’re under sanctions here, people can’t use credit cards, you’ve been cut off from a lot of the commerce of the world. I mean, you must surely welcome a situation which might get you back into the family of nations in a way that you haven’t been since 2011.
President Assad: We’re not against cooperation with any country, we’ll never be. We didn’t start this conflict with the others. They started, they supported terrorists, they gave them the umbrella. It’s not about isolating Syria now; it’s about embargo on the Syrian population or the Syrian citizens. It’s different from isolation. It’s completely different.
Question 40: Do you talk to the Americans? There are American planes in the air above Syria the whole time. Do you coordinate?
President Assad: No, because they don’t talk to anyone unless he’s a puppet, and they easily trampled over the international law, which is about our sovereignty now. So, they don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them.
Question 41: But I’m curious, that at a time when there are… there’s the American military in the air above Syria, and your people are in the air, your air force, the Syrian air force, is in the air above Syria, that there haven’t been any incidents between the two. No shots seem to have been traded, no planes have been shot down. That suggests to me surely that someone is talking to someone here.
President Assad: That’s correct, but again, there’s no direct cooperation.
Question 42: Direct? Is it via Iraq? That’s what some people say.
President Assad: Through third parties, more than one party, Iraq and other countries. Sometimes they convey messages, general messages, but there’s nothing tactical.
Question 43: So, they don’t tell you “we’re going to be bombing at Raqqa at 10 o’clock this evening, please keep out of the way?”
President Assad: We knew about the campaign before it’s started, but we didn’t know about the details.
Question 44: And is that a continuing dialogue that you have through third parties?
President Assad: There’s no dialogue. There’s, let’s say, information. But not dialogue.
Question 45: They tell you things?
President Assad: Something like this.
Question 46: Do you tell them things?
President Assad: No.
Question 47: And apart from Iraq, which other countries-
President Assad: When we do something in our territory, or on our territory, we don’t ask anyone, we don’t tell anyone. We just do it.
Question 48: You don’t say, “Look, if you see Syrian helicopters over a certain area at this hour, please don’t shoot them down?”
President Assad: No. That’s I mean, there’s no tactical cooperation, or through third party cooperation.
Question 49: Does the bombing of IS benefit your government? Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. Defense Secretary, certainly said that the bombing benefitted you, and he resigned shortly after he said that. Do you feel safer as a result of the fact that the Americans are helping you take care of your enemies?
President Assad: That question is contradicting with the first question when you said that we were supporting ISIS in order to get rid of the moderates. If we are against ISIS, we don’t support ISIS. So, this question is more realistic. Yes, it will have some benefits, but if it was more serious and more effective and more efficient. It’s not that much.
Question 50: Can we talk about the humanitarian situation a little bit? One of the effective military tactics your… the Syrian Army has used, is to isolate areas held by rebels, and effectively to starve them out. But that has had the effect also to starve the civilians, and that, again, is against the laws of war, starving civilians.
President Assad: That’s not correct for one reason, because in most of the areas where the rebels took over, the civilians fled and came to our areas, so in most of the areas that we encircle and attack are only militants.
Question 51: They may have come to your areas, not because they want to come, but because their areas are being heavily bombed. I’ve been in some of the suburbs of Damascus, which are a huge contrast to here in the center, where sometimes rubble, you know, 20 meters high. And no wonder people want to get out of there.
President Assad: No, that’s not realistic for one reason, because the natural reaction of any person, of the people, of the families, of the population, is to flee from any area where they expect a conflict. That’s why they flee that area, because they expect fighting between the army and the militants. They flee that area, and they come to the government.
Question 52: It is the case though, that your government has restricted the supply of medicines to rebel-held areas. Elizabeth Hoff, Syria representative of the World Health Organization, said at the end of last year that the government is restricting what is sent to rebel-held areas. Do you accept that is a problem for the civilians who are still in those areas?
President Assad: You know the northern city of al-Raqqa, that’s been taken over by al-Nusra first then later ISIS, you know that?
Question 53: Yeah.
President Assad: You know that till this moment, we still send them food and medicines and everything. So how can we do it for any other area in Syria?
Question 54: Valerie Amos, who is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a statement to the UN Security Council in the end of January of this year, that… she criticized very harshly what Islamic State and others are doing, but she also said the government’s failing, she said, for example, last year, there were 16 requests for aid convoys, 8 convoys, into Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, only 4 were carried out, the other 12 requests were, “unanswered, denied, or subject to conditions that could not be accommodated.” And so, for them, that adds up to the Syrian government blocking aid convoys to civilians in those areas.
President Assad: These same areas are shelling Damascus every day. The same area that she’s talking about. How can we prevent them from food, and we cannot prevent them from having armaments?
Question 55: What are you saying, that they should bring in food themselves rather than just shells?
President Assad: No, I mean that if we can prevent the food from accessing those areas, can’t we prevent the armaments from accessing the same areas? How can we allow the armaments to cross?
Question 56: I don’t know how you run the war, but what I said, the UN is saying-
President Assad: Yes, that’s what I’m asking. I’m just pointing to the contradictions in their statements, just to know. If you can prevent food from accessing, you can prevent armaments, and definitely the priority for us as a government is to prevent the armaments from crossing.
Question 57: So, if civilians suffer as a result of the lack of these convoys, that for you is unavoidable, collateral damage?
President Assad: No, we are talking about unrealistic, non-objective statements. We cannot discuss it as a fact. You know, this is part of the propaganda against Syria for the last four years. So, whenever Amos or any other official or any other organization says something against us, it doesn’t mean it’s real. We have to verify what they say, and is it part of the propaganda, is it politicized, or what.
Question 58: Do you see yourself as the great survivor now of Middle Eastern leaders? President Obama called for you to step down as early as 2011. In 2013, there were lots of reports that you fled to a Russian warship in the Mediterranean, but you’re still here, your family is still here. Do you think that, looking back on it, that you’ve had a lucky escape?
President Assad: No, for one reason; because it wasn’t about me, to survive, it was about Syria, it was about terrorism, it was about changing the state and president because they don’t like the state or the president, they don’t like their polices. That’s what this is about. It’s not a personalized problem, they want to personalize it to link everything to the president.
Question 59: But what a price to pay! Syria is in ruins, there are hundreds of thousands of people dead. You’ve been the commander, you must bear command responsibility for some of that.
President Assad: Yes, according to the constitution and according to the ethics of your job, it is your duty to protect your country when it’s under attack, not to flee and run away, and that’s what we’ve been doing.
Question 60: I spoke a teacher who comes from Qaboun, which is an area which is being held by the rebels, after her school was hit, and she said the shelling is coming from the Syrian Army side. She said it’s the president’s responsibility to keep children out of this war. It’s okay for him to fight the terrorists, but what have children done to deserve this? They don’t have weapons. He needs, both sides she said, but he needs to stop shelling the schools. What is your message to her?
President Assad: What is the aim of shelling schools, realistically? Why would a government shell a school? What do we gain from that?
Question 61: Have you shelled schools?
President Assad: Why? No, definitely not. Why? Because we don’t have an interest. Put aside the duty, put aside the morals of the issue, talk realistically: what is the aim of any army to shell a school?
Question 62: Do you deny any-
President Assad: The government is going to pay to rebuild the school. We’re still paying to maintain the destroyed schools. How can we shell schools? Why do you want to kill students and children? What do we get?
Question 63: You’d say that teacher had the wrong idea?
President Assad: Again, it’s different between having casualties during the war, because that’s a war, and every war in the world has these side effects, and between aiming at schools. That’s the big difference. There’s no way to aim at schools.
Question 64: What keeps you awake at night?
President Assad: What keeps me awake at night? Many reasons that could affect any human. Life. Could be personal, could be work.
Question 65: Your job?
President Assad: Could be the job, could be personal, like anyone, I’m human. Anything could affect any human, I’m human; I will be affected by the same factors.
Question 66: Have you thought about those casualties, and felt or understood the pain of their families and of the people wounded and killed and injured?
President Assad: This is something we live in every day. Whether they are from the opposition, from the other side, or whether they are supporters, we live with it. We are humans, we live with casualties, with the death issues on daily basis. There are families who lost their dear ones, I lost members of my family, I lost friends, I lost people I work with. This is something we live with every day in pain.
Question 67: President Assad, thank you very much.
President Assad: Thank you