Since inheriting the Syrian presidency in June 2000, Bashar Al-Assad has given dozens of interviews to the international media. The former ophthalmologist's discussions with the media usually focus on issues such as Syria leaving Lebanon, his country’s support of terror organizations including Hezbollah, his views on Al-Qa'ida, and allowing Palestinian terror groups to operate from Damascus.
In an interview with the editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anbaa on May 25, 2003, Al-Assad explained in what circumstances Syrian troops would leave Lebanon, "Had the calls [against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon] constituted a majority, we would not remain there for even a single day… Had the [Lebanese] majority seen the Syrian [military] as [an] occupier – I would leave [Lebanon]. No army can remain [in the occupied land] against the will of the citizens. The Lebanese people do not accept [the term] 'occupation' [with regard to Syria] in its literal meaning."
On Hezbollah he told the Arab satellite news channel Al-Arabiya on June 9, 2003, "We said that Hezbollah is Lebanese, not a Syrian party … They have their beliefs and we have ours. When our beliefs intersect, we go with them, and they with us. When there are disagreements, we remain silent … We have no control over Hezbollah, other than agreement about the right of resistance." He also explained, "[The Americans] are always confusing Hezbollah with the Palestinian organizations, and sometimes with Al-Qa'ida. The information they have is not accurate…"
The issue of Palestinian terror organizations operating from Damascus is part of the reason why Syria has been labeled a state-sponsored terror regime by the State Department. Most recently, groups operating from there were accused of planning the Tel-Aviv terrorist attack of February 28, 2005. As President Bush stated at the National Defense University on March 8, 2005, "America and other nations are also aware that the recent terrorist attack in Tel-Aviv was conducted by a radical Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus. Syria … has a long history of supporting terrorist groups … The time has come for Syria … to stop using murder as a tool of policy, and to end all support for terrorism."
Regarding U.S. pressure to close these offices he told Al-Arabiya, "We said that these organizations, which recently arrived, such as Hamas and the [Islamic] Jihad, are conducting informational activities. There are Palestinian organizations that have been in Syria for decades ... But these organizations [Hamas and Jihad] are conducting informational activities: They take responsibility for acts or express opposition to particular initiatives. But their true existence is in Palestine, on the West Bank and Gaza. Those truly responsible are on Palestinian land … We told the Americans that closing the offices would not solve the problem …"
The London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a interview with Al-Assad on January 19, 2004, in which he further discussed the activity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operating from Damascus: "When the Americans asked us to expel Palestinian elements (Islamic Jihad and Hamas), we answered in the negative, and clarified that they had broken none of our laws and done nothing to justify [expulsion]."
The Syrian president also gave a wide-ranging interview at his home, "The People's Palace" in Damascus, to Al-Jazeera in April 2004. On his views regarding Palestinian terror organizations he explained, "The Palestinian resistance is legitimate because it is popular ... Are all the hundreds, thousands, and millions who are resisting occupation in various ways, not necessary by military resistance, all members of the so-called Al-Qa'ida – and we do not know if there exists anything called Al-Qa'ida! … What is happening with regard to popularity gives legitimacy to the resistance …"
Regarding Osama bin Laden’s organization, Al-Assad asked, 'Is there really such an organization [like Al-Qa'ida]?’ during his May 25, 2003 interview with Al-Anbaa, "I cannot believe that bin Laden is managing to prevail over the entire world. All the countries in the world, headed by the U.S., fight against bin Laden. He cannot talk on the telephone or use the Internet, but he manages to contact the four corners of the earth. This is illogical and unrealistic. How can he possibly plan this way, and how does he succeed in acting? With regard to Al-Qa'ida, is there really such an organization? It was in Afghanistan; does it still exist?"
When Bashar was handed the Syrian throne following the death of his father, the West had high hopes that he would improve the situation in his country. Something which has not been the case.
Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute