Al-Assad: 'Syria has nothing to do with this crime'
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad denied that Syria was involved in the killing of Rafik Hariri.
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DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad sat down Wednesday and, in an exclusive interview, spoke to CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
The following is an edited transcript of Amanpour's interview with Al-Assad:
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, it's not just with the United States that you're having trouble right now. It is potentially with the whole world. As you know, in two weeks, the U.N.'s investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri will be published, and there are well-informed U.N. sources who say that Syria will be implicated.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: We're not isolated. So far, we have very good relations with the whole of the world. I think most of the country, they know that Syria is not involved in that crime for two reasons. The first reason, this goes against our principles. The second reason, this goes against our interests.
And from another aspect, Rafik Hariri was supportive to the Syrian role in Lebanon. He was never against. So there's no logic involving Syria -- in putting Syria's name in this crime. So far, we are very confident, and we'll see the investigation committee two weeks ago, and we're very cooperative. And we are more confident after that interview that they made in Syria that we are completely innocent. Syria has nothing to do with this crime.
AMANPOUR: And yet, you've obviously heard the informed speculation that Syria could be implicated. If it is implicated, and if the names of high-level or any Syrian officials are provided as suspects, will you hand them over for an international trial?
AL-ASSAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Concerning this specific matter, if indeed there is a Syrian national implicated in it, he would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished. It is treason and where the trial will take place, that's different. However, we are confident that Syria is not involved, and so far, there is no material evidence of Syrian involvement. We are confident of that.
AMANPOUR: So just let me get it straight again. If Syrians are implicated, you will hand them over for international trial?
ASSAD: Yes. If implicated, they should be punished. International or Syrian, whatever. If they're not punished internationally, they will be punished in Syria.
AMANPOUR: There are people who believe -- and very probably, the U.N. investigation will say this -- that Syria is behind the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. Would you have ordered such an assassination?
ASSAD: This is against our principle and my principle. And I would never do such a thing in my life. What do we achieve? What do we achieve? I think what happened targeted Syria. That would affect our relation with the Lebanese people and with most of the country. So we wouldn't do it because it's against our interest, and it's against my principle. I would never do it. It's impossible.
AMANPOUR: If many Syrians are implicated, is it possible that such an act, such a crime, could have taken place by Syrian officials without your knowledge?
ASSAD: I don't think so. As I said, if that happened, this is treason.
ASSAD: Treason. This is treason.
AMANPOUR: How did you first hear about the assassination?
ASSAD: Through the news. I was in my office.
AMANPOUR: As you know, because you've read it, and we've read it, there are witnesses who have said that during one of Mr. Hariri's last visits to Damascus, he was threatened by you unless he supported the extension of the mandate of the current president, Emile Lahoud, who's friendly to Syria. Did you threaten him, sir?
ASSAD: This is another illegal presumption. First of all, it's not my nature to threaten anybody. I'm a very quiet person. I'm very frank, but I wouldn't threaten. Second, as you said, threaten him for the extension. They say threaten him, then the Syrian killed him.
So why to kill him if he did what Syria wants, if he didn't do anything against Syria, if he wanted the extension. He helped Syria achieving the extension, of making the extension. So why to harm him or to kill him? There's no logic. But I didn't, and I would never do it.
AMANPOUR: You know Mr. Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, led a victorious democratic coalition to victory in the last elections in Lebanon, and yet, he is now living in Paris. And he has said that he fears an assassination plot against him. Does Mr. Saad Hariri or any people, even those who speaks out against Syria in Lebanon, journalists, others, do they have anything to fear from you?
ASSAD: No, not at all. Definitely not, not from Syria. Never. We don't have this history of assassinations in Syria, so they don't have to worry from that.
AMANPOUR: There are some people, sir, who say that you're the president, but maybe you're not fully in charge of those aspects, maybe you're not in the loop. Is that possible?
ASSAD: But at the same time, they say that I'm a dictator. So they should choose. You cannot be a dictator and not in control. If you're a dictator, you're in full control. And if you're not a dictator -- if you're not in control, you cannot be a dictator. Actually, I'm not the first one, I'm not the second one.
I have my authority by the constitution, by the Syrian constitution. But at the same time, it's not enough to have the authority. It's very important to make dialogue with the widest circle of people you can to take your decision. And this is the way I work.
AMANPOUR: What do you envision for two weeks from now? This report is going to come out. If the worst case for scenario for Syria is in that report, in other words, that Syria is to blame, what is going to happen to this country? There'll be sanctions, your country will be increasingly isolated. How will the country survive?
ASSAD: That depends on the evidence. If there's any evidence, we'll support any action. This is for sure. If it's just political gain and there's no evidence and they just want, or they're looking for, a reason to isolate Syria, the question is forward, what do they achieve if they isolate Syria? Nothing.
What can they do about many issues in the Middle East that Syria is essential in solving them? Nothing. We are essential. They cannot isolate Syria. I mean, isolating Syria is isolating themselves from many issues in the Middle East. So we're not worried about that.
We are very confident that the report, if it's professional, will say that Syria is not involved. Otherwise, we think there must be political pressure on the report to be another result and accuse Syria without any evidence. That's what we are worried about.
Relations with the United States
AMANPOUR: The United States is extremely angry with you and your government. It accuses you of facilitating, providing haven, and now actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq. What are you going to do to stop doing all that, to stop allowing the insurgents into Iraq?
ASSAD: I wouldn't say this is true. It's completely wrong. You have an aspect of the problem. The first aspect is no country can control his borders completely. And example is the border between the United States and Mexico. And many American officials told me: "We cannot control our border with Mexico." But at the end, they end up saying: "You should control your border with Iraq."
This is impossible, and I told Mr. Powell that for the first time we met after the war. I told him: "It's impossible to control the border."
And we asked for some technical support, but we did many steps to control our border, as I said, not completely, but we did many steps. And we'd like to invite any delegation from the world or from the United States to come and see our borders to see the steps that we took, and to look at the other side to see nothing. There is nobody on the other side, American or Iraqi.
AMANPOUR: And yet, everybody I talked to, even commanders on the ground in Iraq, say that the bulk of the foreign insurgents, or the Iraqi insurgents, are coming from Syria. Why can't your forces go house to house? Why can't you actively stop this, close it down?
ASSAD: I said it's impossible to for any country to stop it down. But many officials said the number is between 1,000 and 3,000 insurgents, as they call them, or terrorists. The curse in Iraq is recent, not the border. We should be very frank about this. The problem is political, not the border with Syria. When you have chaos, it's a tide pool for terrorists. This is the problem.
AMANPOUR: Do you agree that it's a bad thing? Would you like to see the insurgency stopped?
ASSAD: Regardless for the United States, one, our interest as Syria is to have stable Iraq. And when you have insurgency or terrorism or anything like this, you will have more chaos. When you have more chaos, you will have fragmented Iraq. That means affecting Syria directly. This is contagious.
So from our point of view, we should help the Iraqis being stable. But they must be -- we should differentiate between insurgency and the Iraqis who fight against the American and British troops. This is something different. I'm talking about the people who killed the Iraqis, those who will call them terrorists. We are against them completely.
AMANPOUR: Why have you stopped, according to your ambassador in Washington, intelligence cooperation with the United States?
ASSAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): There cannot be security cooperation when the political repercussions are the exact opposite, further attacks from the U.S. administration. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, because of the weak analysis and knowledge of the region by U.S. agencies, in many cases, this security cooperation has had a negative effect on Syrian interests. We have lost faith. Syrian security and U.S. agencies have lost trust, so cooperation stopped.
However, there has been an attempt to resume cooperation, basically, through mediation by some Arab and European states. We said we have no objection, as long as it goes through a third party. Now, those Arab and non-Arab parties went to say that to the U.S. side, to say: "What do you want from Syria." So far, no response.
AMANPOUR: What is your condition for helping the United States, and are you prepared to help the United States?
ASSAD: You mean in Iraq?
ASSAD: Definitely. We don't have any problem, and we said that publicly. They talk about stable Iraq, we have a direct interest in stable Iraq. They talk about unified Iraq, we have direct interest [in a] unified Iraq.
They talk about supporting the political process, we have interest in that, for that will help in stability. So there's no difference. We don't know what they want. I think they don't know what they want.
AMANPOUR: There's also talk about potentially the U.S. bombing safe havens and insurgent strongholds inside Syria. Has that happened?
AMANPOUR: If it does happen, would you consider that a hostile act? Would you retaliate?
ASSAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We will deal with every situation through the U.N. If it happens, I cannot really go into a hypothesis at this point. However, there is no such safe haven or camp of the kind to be bombed.
AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They're granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They're talking about isolating your diplomatically and, perhaps, a coup d'etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?
ASSAD: I feel very confident for one reason. Because I was made in Syria, I wasn't made in the United States. So I'm not worried. This is Syrian decision. It should be made by the Syrian people, nobody else in this world. So we don't discuss it in Syria.
AMANPOUR: What would happen, do you think, if there was an alternative to you? Who is the alternative to you?
ASSAD: It could be any Syrian, any national Syrian, and we have a lot. I'm not the only person who's eligible to be president. We have a lot of Syrians, so we don't have any problem about that. But no Syrian would be allowed to be president if he's made anywhere outside our borders. This is a Syrian principle.
Well, let me start from the memoir of President Clinton, who mentioned that round in Shepherdstown [West Virginia, at a January 2000 summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa]. And he said Syria was ready to make peace and it was forthcoming toward peace, but Barak couldn't deliver. So we were ready in 2000, and we were ready in 1991, when the peace process launched in Madrid.
And we're still ready. So we haven't changed as Syria. What changed, two things. The administration in the United States has changed and the government in Israel.
The administration in the United States, as I heard from them, from some of [the] officials, I think [it] could be Mr. Powell, and as many Arab and European officials heard from people in the administration, in the American administration, and some of them heard, I think, from President Bush, that it's not their priority now, the peace process.
Palestinians in Syria
At the same time, we don't think this government in Israel is serious about the peace process. So, in the near future, we don't see any hope. But in the long term, there must be peace. There is no other option.
AMANPOUR: Every time this issue comes up, we need to ask you about the Palestinian rejectionists, the so-called radical Palestinians who don't believe in the peace process and who've been blamed for terrorism, who have bases here. Are you going to close them down?
ASSAD: In Syria, we have half a million Palestinians, and they have eight organizations, political organizations, for (inaudible). We have another two who was expelled from the Palestinian territories and came to Syria. They're not allowed to go back to their territory.
The normal thing is that they can go back to their country or to their territory. In Syria, all these organizations, they only work on a political basis. They cannot do anything else. They meet with the Palestinian people in Syria, they express their political positions.
Regarding two organizations, they don't have members in Syria. ... They don't have their organization, they don't have their offices. There are only few of the leaders. They were expelled from their territory, and they came to Syria.
So they don't have offices. They live in houses and they meet with people. So when they say they close -- to close what? Close their houses? They're going to have another house. And they can meet with people. They live normally. But they don't do any action in the Palestinian territory from Syria.
AMANPOUR: I want to ask about reform here in Syria. When you became president, tragically because of the death of your brother, you were almost the accidental president of Syria. And people had a huge amount of hope. You were young, you were a new face.
There was a moment where there was a Damascus spring flowering, reform, a little bit of democratic progress. And then it all came to a grinding halt. Now you've started a little bit again after the party congress in the summer. And yet, people say it's still not enough, we can't go in slow motion now because the pressures on us are so intense. What is your plan for this?
ASSAD: Let me comment on "accidental president." I cannot accept it because this means we ignored the opinion of the Syrian people who made me president. So it's not accidental, it's by their will.
Second, when asked me about my plan, you should ask me first, do I have all the requirements? No. We don't have. This will be the answer, because we have many factors. Internal factors and external factors. Internal factors is your will, your history, your tradition, your goals, and many other factors. The external factors are the peace process, stability in the region, what's going in Iraq, the support that you get from the developed countries in reforming in your country.
Because when you say reforming, it's not only political reforming. It's the reforming in general, what you mean political, economical, technical, and all the other aspects of reform. So we don't control all these aspects. That's why we have a lot of obstacles to go forward.
When you talk about the speed in this plan, regarding this plan, it's a matter what car do you have. You cannot go to fast or very fast in a old car. So you need this new car.
What pillars do you have? You should put pillars when you have reform. These pillars constitute the base when you have this building upon this base. If it's not strong enough, it will fall. So these pillars related to our history and to these factors that I mentioned.
AMANPOUR: But are you committed to it?
ASSAD: Definitely. And we're not perfect. Nobody's perfect. We are going steadily and consistently. Maybe not too fast, but we are consistent, we are committed.
And not only the government, the majority of the people support this process. But we still have a long way to go. That doesn't mean we didn't do. We did a lot.
We recently started studying modern law for multi-parties in Syria. We have multi-parties, but we're looking for more open law. We had private universities during the last two years. We had private media, private schools, private banking. We had many things we did during the last five years.
For me, I don't think it's slow. It's fast. But we always want to be faster, and this is normal, and this is right, and want to achieve more. This is normal ambition.
AMANPOUR: Your father made a strategic decision in 1991 to support the first President Bush in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Why did you not do the same this time around?
ASSAD: President Hafez Assad didn't support President Bush the father. He supported the liberation of Kuwait. And this is the difference. So it's completely different.
If I'm going to support this administration, I would have supported occupying Iraq. And we are against the war. Generally, we always think that wars create tension and create adverse effects that will affect Syria directly and the other countries, not only Iraq.
So we are against the war as a principal and as interest. That's why we didn't support them.
AMANPOUR: Are you now afraid of civil war there, though?
ASSAD: Yes, yes. When you have chaos, this is fertile soil for.
AMANPOUR: And would that not propel you to try to support what the U.S. is doing in Iraq?
ASSAD: That's what I answered a few moments ago, that we are ready to support the political process. You cannot achieve stability and prevent the Iraq from civil war or from fragmentation without political process. You cannot. You need the political process, and we support it. And we support this government.
So we support Iraq. It's different from supporting the United States.
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